from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1994
Teen-Aid's products, which include books titled Sexuality, Commitment & Family and Me, My World, My Future, have indeed made their way into some public-school systems. One such system is the Unified School District of Antigo, Wisconsin, a town of some 8,500 people. What happened in Antigo -- pronounced An-ti-go -- shows how the Religious Right can gain control of sex-education and health-education curricula.
In early 1991, a group of Antigo citizens proposed that some "abstinence-based" materials marketed by Teen-Aid be adopted as the basic components of the Antigo district's sex-education curriculum -- known formally as the Human Growth and Development (HGD) curriculum. Along with that proposal, the citizens' group made a highly unusual offer to the district's governing body, the Antigo Board of Education: If the Board would accept the Teen-Aid materials, the citizens' group would raise the money to purchase them. Students would get the Teen-Aid books, but the Board would not have to spend any of its own cash.
"We were facing a budget crunch," recalls Michael Hunter, the Board's president, "and this group just said, 'Hey, we'll pay for it. You don't have to worry about getting funds for it. We'll go out and get the funding for it. No problem.' And we said, 'Great'!"
The Board took the offer that the citizens' group had made.
Hunter says that he doesn't regard this as unusual, and he notes that, in the past, community groups had contributed funds to purchase musical instruments, athletic equipment, and even a high-school gymnasium. He says that he sees no difference between those contributions and the Teen-Aid deal, even though the Teen-Aid deal determined, at least in part, the content of HGD instruction in the Antigo schools.
A different view comes from Roxanne Borneman, an Antigo resident who once served on the Human Growth and Development Committee that advises the district about sex education:
"They completely bypassed normal policy as to how instructional materials are reviewed and selected," Borneman says. "They tied it to whether the proponents of Teen-Aid would pay for it."
Stan Kocos, a public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin and a close observer of Teen-Aid and similar organizations, says that the Antigo case is not unique. Usually, he remarks, the organizations rely on local people to generate the money for buying the organizations' materials and for distracting the officials of local school districts. Instead of focusing on whether the materials are sound and appropriate, district officials become preoccupied with the prospect of getting something without having to pay for it.
Only after the Antigo Board approved acquisition of the Teen-Aid materials did those materials come under scrutiny. Until then, according to Roxanne Borneman, local promoters had successfully portrayed Teen-Aid as a legitimate and widely accepted source of educational materials.
Teen-Aid's own promotional literature fosters the same false impression. In a recent handout, for example, the organization describes itself as "the major provider of true abstinence materials for the public school [sic] in the U.S." Other Teen-Aid publications include false claims about endorsements, along with fake "statistics" which purportedly demonstrate that the use of Teen-Aid materials in the San Marcos (California) Unified School District produced a dramatic decline in the incidence of pregnancy among students. The San Marcos story is a fairy tale. [See Part 1 of this report.] Every Teen-Aid claim must be regarded with suspicion and skepticism, but these were in short supply among members of the Antigo Board.
When Teen-Aid's national director, LeAnna L. Benn, traveled to Antigo to promote her wares to the Board and the community, she was asked to furnish a list of the school districts that were using Teen-Aid materials. She said she hadn't kept track. That reply evidently didn't sound suspicious to the Board, even though it effectively kept the Board from trying to get independent assessments of Teen-Aid's products from professional educators who were familiar with those products.
Not everybody in Antigo was gullible or unconscious, however. The district's Human Growth and Development Committee, which included Roxanne Borneman, examined Teen-Aid's materials closely. Borneman has described her reactions in an article that she wrote, with her husband, for a local newsletter called PREPARE. The article said, in part:
The materials were . . . poorly written in terms of content, illustrations and accuracy as well as systematically written in a biased and discriminatory manner. Minority groups were either entirely omitted or poorly represented, single parents and their children were clearly derided, women were portrayed as best staying at home raising children conceived in an idealized two-parent family. Working women were historically linked to many of the current social problems . . . . Sexuality was defined only within the context of married couples for the purpose of having children. Dubious and outdated medical information was presented . . . .
The Human Growth and Development Committee voted to advise the Board to reject the Teen-Aid materials.
Michael Hunter, the Board's president, fired the Committee and appointed a new one dominated by supporters of Teen-Aid.
Hunter now defends that action by claiming that the original Committee was improperly constituted: "There were too many teachers on it. It wasn't representative of the community."
But Hunter was and is one of Teen-Aid's most ardent advocates in Antigo, and he has contributed to the fund that the citizens' group raised to pay for Teen-Aid materials. When asked about the composition of the new Committee, he asserts: "I didn't poll each person before appointing them. I didn't know until they took the vote whether there was a new majority on the Committee. Of course, I was hoping it would come out that way."
In October 1991, the district's Bias Review Committee completed its own, independent review of the Teen-Aid materials. Finding them to be biased and discriminatory, the Review Committee recommended to the Board that Teen-Aid's offerings not be used. The Board, however, rejected that recommendation and voted to keep Teen-Aid's products in Antigo's schools.
Michael Hunter seems to find this funny: "The teachers' hair went up on the back of their heads about three inches," he says.
Chris Knitt, a Teen-Aid advocate who chairs the new Human Growth and Development Committee that Hunter appointed, acknowledges that sex-education and health-education teachers in Antigo "were outraged" when Teen-Aid materials were imposed on them. But she avers that the teachers brought it on themselves, because they previously taught sex education in ways that offended fundamentalist Christians.
Knitt speaks obliquely about "some of the things that were going on in the classroom." When asked to elaborate, she alleges that "Teachers were giving specific referrals to kids for birth control and abortion, without parental consent. They were delving deeply into sexual positions and sexual practices, heterosexual and homosexual."
Pressed to substantiate her claims, Knitt confesses that she has no evidence: "I can't say for sure, but let's say they had leeway to do that."
According to Roxanne Borneman, Teen-Aid's proponents have repeatedly used such baseless stories to garner support: "If this really had happened -- if a faculty member had instructed on some types of sexual positions -- you would expect at least one parent to come forward and make a direct complaint. That never happened. There's no proof of any of this. But in public forums, these [fundamentalists] bring up these stories to get people inflamed and to create a reaction. And they're pretty effective in getting people excited and thinking, 'We've got to do something! This is wrong!'"
Chris Knitt argues that the community must control education in the schools. Teachers don't realize, she says, that the function of the Board and the Human Growth and Development Committee is "to tell them what they can teach."
Borneman comments: "That's the cry of a lot of these groups that are attempting to control what's being taught. You know: It's 'Parents, take over your schools! You don't know what's being taught!' And it has a broad base of appeal. But really, this is a church-and-state issue. They don't talk about religion around the district because that would be a red flag, but these are fundamentalist religious groups. What happens is that they zero in on these controversial areas. It gets into sex ed, and then it starts affecting how science is taught. Ultimately, these groups want to be supervising how all teachers are doing their teaching."
After the Teen-Aid approach was adopted -- over the objections of many teachers -- as the basis of sex education in Antigo, a group of teachers tried to avert what they saw as an educational disaster in the making: With permission from the Board, they spent a year in developing an alternative curriculum. But according to Chris Knitt, the alternative didn't seem "abstinence-based" to the majority on the new Human Growth and Development Committee.
"So we took another six months," Knitt says, "and added parameters and guidelines to their curriculum, as well as specific philosophy statements, to make it more narrow -- put everything in black and white -- so everybody knows where our community is coming from. And not leaving so much gray area."
The Antigo curriculum has very little "gray area," and it doesn't leave much room for brains, either. It is "directive education," in which students are told what to think, not how to think -- apparently because students are assumed to be unable to comprehend more than one message about any one topic. For example, classroom discussions of condoms usually are considered inappropriate, because such discussions conflict with the central theme of abstinence. On those rare occasions when condoms may be mentioned in Antigo classrooms, teachers are required to emphasize the failure rate of condoms, rather than the usefulness of condoms in preventing pregnancy or the transmission of venereal diseases.
"If you were going to jump out of a plane with a parachute," Chris Knitt asks, "and one out of five parachutes would fail, would you jump? That's what we want to teach. You're better off to tell students, straight out: The condom won't work, so don't count on it." (Knitt obviously wants students to believe that condoms display a failure rate of 20%, but that is false.)
What about those Antigo adolescents who cannot live up to the curriculum's vision of universal abstinence?
"Well," says Knitt, "we're planning on forming a subcommittee to deal with sexually active students within this next year. We'll look into it."
How about classroom discussions of homosexuality?
"We are limiting the discussion of homosexuality," Knitt responds. "There are gay people; there are straight people. That's all we're saying about it. We felt it was enough just to say, 'People are people,' and leave it at that."
Curriculum guidelines prohibit Antigo teachers from discussing certain subjects, even if students ask questions. For example, if a student reads a newspaper article that links AIDS to anal intercourse, and if the student then asks a teacher for an explanation, the teacher must say: "That is a topical area you must discuss with your parents." (Apparently, all Antigo parents are assumed to be experts on the "topical area" of anal intercourse.)
These are some of the effects that the efforts of the Religious Right and the adoption of the Teen-Aid curriculum have wrought in Antigo. Teachers are pressured to provide the same sort of inadequate, wrong and misleading "information" about sex that many uninformed, embarrassed parents have imparted to young people through the years. Antigo students are left ignorant, deluded and vulnerable because Teen-Aid and its local confederates have moved superstition and incompetence into the classroom, disguised as "education."
Lee McEachern is the executive producer of Best Image Productions, an independent television company in Kentfield, California. Before he became an independent producer, he worked as a reporter for television stations in the San Francisco Bay area, specializing in information about scientific and environmental affairs.
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