Shenendehowa sex ed program remains divisive
School board denies group’s request for notification policy
CLIFTON PARK Five months after the Shenendehowa Central School District unveiled a new Web page about its health curriculum, parents who wanted an abstinence-based sex education program taught in the schools are still unhappy with the district’s approach to the controversial issue.
Members of the Shen Parents Choice Coalition want parents to be directly notified with specifics about sex education topics and have asked the Board of Education to draft a policy spelling out when parents are notified.
The board will not draft such a policy, officials said. Three parents voiced their concerns Tuesday night at the Board of Education meeting after sending emails to district officials.
The board didn’t respond at the meeting; its practice is not to respond during the public comment period.
Earlier Tuesday, the board president said policies are broader than what the parents requested, and the board won’t draft a specific one for a small part of the curriculum. The Board of Education has left notifying parents up to district administrators and teachers, who have a procedure in place, school officials said Tuesday.
“What they asked for, it was a very narrow request,” Board of Education President Mary Blaauboer said. And with the communication stream that the district already has in place, “there wouldn’t be a need for a policy.”
Parents can view the curriculum for their child’s health class, including the sexual education component, on a new Web page officials set up at the beginning of this year. The page can be found by visiting shenet.org, clicking on the “H” in the A-Z index and selecting “Health Education 6-12.”
For example, the page states that the high school sexual health unit will start on Feb. 14 for some students and on April 24 for others. Students take the 20-week health class, which includes the sex education unit, in 11th or 12th grade.
Eighth-graders also take sex education as part of health, and for them the unit begins on May 21.
Various links from the health Web page describe the curriculum in more detail, explaining how in eighth grade students learn about the reproductive system, abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS, teen pregnancy and gender stereotypes.
High school students learn about those topics plus contraception, more detail about HIV and AIDS, sexual orientation and risky behaviors.
Parents also receive a broad outline of the health curriculum in a handout that children bring home and that parents sign.
“That Web page was built to inform parents about the entire health education curriculum,” said district spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani.
But the parents say it doesn’t go far enough, and their children could be taught things that go against their personal values without the parents’ knowledge.
“There needs to be a policy,” said Maureen Silfer of Halfmoon. “When something this big happens, you need to focus on it.”
She and a few dozen other parents asked the district more than a year ago to remove Planned Parenthood educators from teaching three days of a 10-day sex education curriculum out of concern about that organization’s content and approach. Their complaints included that the educators belittled some children for having conservative beliefs.
Shenendehowa’s sex education curriculum focuses on abstinence as the best option for students but also teaches about using contraception, something that the parent group opposes.
“Any school community is diverse as far as faith and values and morality,” Silfer said, adding that the district needs to take that into account when communicating with parents.
The district did remove Planned Parenthood educators from classrooms in October 2011 and convened a committee to study the issue and make recommendations to the school board last summer.
The board adopted the recommendations in late August; they included emphasizing abstinence as the healthiest choice for teenagers, basing teaching on scientific research, giving health teachers the chance to let outside speakers such as Planned Parenthood come in and incorporating some sexual health curriculum into elementary grades.
The advisory committee didn’t recommend that the district notify parents directly of the specific information taught, as the parents who favor abstinence want, DeFeciani said. The committee did say that individual health teachers should tell parents in the future if they’re going to bring in an outside speaker, she added.
That contrasts to the past practice, when Planned Parenthood educators taught in schools and parents found out after the fact, Silfer said.
“There’s something wrong about that,” she said.
She’s also concerned about what is being taught at the elementary grades.
“These are elementary school kids,” she said. “I want to know when you’re going to do this. I want to look and see if I consider this appropriate.”
According to a document on the district’s health Web page, the elementary subject matter touches on puberty, hormones and simple facts about HIV and AIDS, such as that it causes people to get sick but children don’t typically get it and that people cannot catch the disease by being near someone who has it.