By Ashley M. Casey
A month after the Baldwinsville Central School District booted New Hope Family Services from presenting their abstinence-only program to health classes studying sex education, a parent in the Liverpool Central School District is hoping her district will follow suit.
Caitlin Coulombe, the parent of a seventh-grader at Chestnut High Middle School, said her child brought home a form from health teacher Eric Cizenski in November with instructions to sign and return the form to indicate both parent and child understood the health curriculum.
The form included the following: “New Hope Family Services presents their Abstinence Education Program to the eighth grade health classes, which contains information about decision-making, healthy relationships, abstinence education, and STI’s.”
According to its website, New Hope is a “pregnancy resource center and a New York state authorized adoption agency.” The organization was formerly known as “Evangelical Adoption and Family Services.” In addition to its adoption services, the Christian nonprofit offers pregnancy tests, advice and assistance as well as “Real Love Respects,” an abstinence education program that visits health classes in several school districts in Central New York. New Hope presents the program at Chestnut Hill and Soule Road middle schools but not at Liverpool Middle School.
While her child won’t start eighth grade until the 2018-19 school year, Coulombe decided to take action. She contacted school officials about her concerns Nov. 15 and has been going back and forth via email and phone ever since.
“I had some ethical concerns with the program being presented by a religious organization” Coulombe told the Star-Review. “I understand that they say the program is designed for a public school setting, but at the same time they’re talking about theologically driven ideals — waiting until marriage, the purity of virginity, reclaiming virginity — which is not something that belongs in a science-based classroom.”
Coulombe appeared before the LCSD Board of Education on Jan. 8 and asked the district to end its relationship with New Hope.
“I read a statement to the board expressing my concerns with New Hope and I also gave them a letter stating how happy I was with the school district and that this was a lapse of judgment on their behalf,” she said.
‘That’s a home run, folks’
At the Jan. 22 meeting, representatives from New Hope spoke about the Real Love Respects program. Acting Executive Director Judy Geyer said New Hope strives to leave religion out of its presentations but seeks to “reflect community values.”
“Our Real Love Respects program is not to replace the sex ed program,” Geyer said. “Instead, it is to complement and enhance it.”
Christine Goldman, New Hope’s Real Love Respects program coordinator, said the presentation is “non-judgmental” and was “developed and designed for the teens.”
“This program helps them in their decision-making. We don’t tell them what to do; we give them information,” Goldman said. “Just as we teach our teens about the risk of cigarettes and the addiction it can cause, the risk of alcoholism, we want to stand and teach our teenagers about the risks of casual sex.”
Geyer said student evaluations of the program have been overwhelmingly positive in the last four years, with 796 out of 798 surveys giving the presentation good marks.
“That’s a home run, folks,” Liverpool board member Kevin Van Ness said upon hearing that statistic.
Van Ness was not the only board member who spoke in support of the Real Love Respects program. Michael Leone said the presentation encouraged conversations within his family about sex ed and abstinence.
“They weren’t always the most talkative, but your program definitely opened up the dialogue,” he said of his three children. “Unfortunately, we’re living in a society today where the two-parent home is being diminished monthly, daily. One parent is faced with working, feeding the kid … and trying to teach them to be a young adult as well, so I feel like we need as much help in the schools as possible.”
Board member Stacey Balduf said she has seen the consequences of unintended teen pregnancy in her career as a family law attorney.
“It uproots their whole lives,” she said, adding that pregnancy can cause teens to fall into poverty and to drop out of school.
“The reality, regardless of what your personal beliefs are, there’s only one way to really make sure you don’t get pregnant,” Balduf said.
BOE member James Root said the New Hope program is “worthwhile to continue” and asked why the group only visits CHM and SRM, not Liverpool MS.
“We would be happy to be in the third middle school,” Geyer said.
However, other board members expressed their concerns about the program. Neil Fitzpatrick said he did not see anything overtly religious in New Hope’s program, but he suggested updating some of the language used.
“Maybe simply the words ‘premarital [sex]’ bring about connotations in 2017. A lot of kids might feel separated from the rest of the crowd based on the use of that language,” Fitzpatrick said. “Could we explore curriculum verbiage that changes to things like ‘adult’ and ‘consenting’ and ‘healthy’?”
Board member Richard Pento, who is a science teacher at John C. Birdlebough High School in Phoenix, said it is important to teach abstinence alongside lessons about contraception and protection methods such as condoms, but he suggested “grounding [lessons] a little bit in the reality of the situation.”
On average, Pento said, a male’s first instance of sexual activity takes place at 16.9 years old and a female’s at 17.4. The average age at marriage, he said, is 29 for males and 27 for females.
“If we go by this pledge to save sexual intimacy for marriage, I think what we’re doing is we’re looking at an age gap between 16.9 years for a male who loses their virginity and marriage at 29. That’s a 12-year gap,” Pento said.
Pento added that adolescents may think in black and white when it comes to messages about sex and abstinence.
“A 25-year-old is in a very different mental state … versus a 17-year-old,” he said. “The language can be a little bit concerning for some: ‘I’ve failed that, this pledge that I had signed is no longer valid.’”
Pento also noted that the rate of teen pregnancy has plummeted in recent years. According to the CDC, the birth rate among girls 15 to 19 years old reached a record low of 22.3 live births per 1,000 girls in 2015. In 2007, that rate was 41.5 births per 1,000 girls.
“I don’t think the teen sexual activity rate has dropped commensurately, so I don’t think we can attribute individuals refraining from sex [as] totally the reason why the teen pregnancy rate has dropped,” Pento said.
BOE President Craig Dailey said “marriage had a better feeling and definition” when New York state drafted guidelines on sex education in the 1980s.
“Marriage means something totally different today. It’s a moving target,” he said. “What I’m hearing is if we could just be more sensitive to the different type of committed relationships out there in our language and our presentation of abstinence, that could be some feedback to possibly be considered.”
‘Nobody re-chews a piece of gum’
As the board mused on the sensitivity of the language New Hope uses in its abstinence presentations, the organization’s representatives emphasized that their goal is not to make kids feel bad about themselves.
“We wanted each student to feel very valuable, no matter what they’ve been through, no matter whether they are sexually active or they’re not sexually active. We realize that some of these students have gone through sexual abuse,” Geyer said. “We address those issues in our program and help them to know that they are intrinsically valuable no matter whatever decisions they have made or what has happened to them where they have been a victim.”
Coulombe disputed the contention that the presentation makes students feel valuable, citing the example of child safety activist Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted at age 14 in 2002, held captive and raped repeatedly for nine months.
“She felt like she was broken and used,” Coulombe said.
In a panel discussion at Johns Hopkins University in 2013, Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” afterward because of abstinence-only lessons she’d received earlier in life.
Smart described one such lesson:
“Imagine you’re a stick of gum. When you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum, and who is going to want you after that?” Smart said. “Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away. And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.”
New Hope’s Real Love Respects program features a skit with the same premise. Baldwinsville parent Gina Tonello’s daughter recorded the skit in her high school health class. Upon hearing the recording, Tonello urged Baldwinsville school officials to disinvite the organization from its classes. She also founded Stop the Shaming, an organization with the goal of removing New Hope’s abstinence program from CNY schools.
In the skit, a female New Hope presenter chooses a male student volunteer. “I think you are the one,” she says in Tonello’s daughter’s recording, before presenting him with the “gift” she’s been saving for someone special: a stick of gum.
The boy chews the gum, and the presenter chooses a second boy from the class and deems him “the one.” To the first boy, she says, “I know I gave you that gift, but I kind of need it back,” and offers the chewed-up gum to the second boy.
“It’s teaching girls that their virginity is more sacred and it’s teaching boys that girls are less valuable if they’ve had sex,” Tonello said.
Messages such as this, Tonello said, are part of the culture that has allowed sexual abuse, assault and harassment to proliferate.
“This is a pervasive problem. We are not the only ones listening to the chewed gum message,” she said. “This #MeToo movement doesn’t just come from nowhere.”
Last year, actress Alyssa Milano popularized the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter, encouraging people to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
“This is not just a local issue. This is a national issue,” Coulombe said.
Tonello said an abstinence-only approach from a Christian organization can alienate many students.
“If I was an LGBTQ student I would be immediately turned off,” she said. “People who are turned off by ‘no premarital sex’ are people who have already had sex and people who have been sexually abused.”
Coulombe said New Hope’s approach keeps young people from being open with their parents about their health and sexuality, making them less likely to seek out contraceptives and protective barrier methods such as condoms.
“This doesn’t make kids have sex less. It makes them have secretive sex. When sex is secret is when it’s dangerous,” she said. “Providing sex education in a sex-positive way — not that they need to be having sex now — is good for our children because they’re not going to be too embarrassed to talk to their parents.”
Ideally, Coulombe would like to see Liverpool remove New Hope Family Services from its health classes as the Baldwinsville district has.
“This seems like such a sensitive topic. I can’t believe that this would be the thing they’d bring in strangers to talk about when they have a certified teacher who already has a rapport with kids,” she said.
“Let’s let the teachers teach it,” she said.
Coulombe and Tonello both said their school districts could bring in less controversial outside agencies to supplement the sex ed unit. Tonello suggested the Onondaga County Health Department or ACR Health.
“[ACR Health] has an unbiased program based on New York state curriculum,” she said. “They are an amazing organization and they’re dying to get into schools to teach their lessons.”
If Liverpool chooses to keep inviting New Hope to present its Real Love Respects program, Coulombe said “at the absolute bare minimum” parents should be informed that it is a Christian organization and should be given the chance to opt out. Coulombe said Liverpool officials told her she could opt out, but nowhere on the form her child brought home does it say attending presentation is optional.
“If you have to chase it down, it’s not an option that’s actually presented to you,” she said. “The lack of transparency is an issue that needs to be resolved immediately.”