Parents criticize Clovis Unified sex education

Foes say it pushes abstinence and uses dated information.

May 12, 2011 

A sex-education program in Clovis is under attack from parents who say it illegally emphasizes abstinence and fails to provide accurate medical information.

The state Department of Education is taking the parents' concerns seriously. And a review of the program by the department is likely, a state official says.

The parents want Clovis Unified School District to scrap the program, Teen Choices, a sex-education curriculum for seventh-graders written by Mac Shaw, a former Fowler City Council member.

"Kids are going to get misinformation and make poor choices because of that information," said Aubree Smith, the mother of a 10th-grader at Clovis High School who has not gone through the program and a labor-and-delivery nurse at Clovis Community Medical Center.

Clovis Unified officials say the district has had few complaints about Teen Choices. Still, they plan to review the program this summer.

But the state Department of Education has received enough complaints from Clovis parents to raise concerns about the program, said Sharla Smith, the state's HIV/STD prevention education consultant.

The program likely is the same curriculum used in the past by the Selma and Dinuba school districts, Smith said. Selma dropped Teen Choices after a state audit in 2008, and Dinuba dropped it after a 2010 audit, she said. Smith said that she found the programs did not meet legal requirements in the state Education Code.

On Thursday evening, parents met at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno in Clovis to discuss their concerns and raise awareness. About 30 attended.

They compared notes about the Teen Choices curriculum.

Parent Aubree Smith said that the section on HIV/AIDS begins with the notion that French, or open-mouth, kissing would spread HIV/AIDS. One parent said her daughter was taught that sharing earrings would spread sexually transmitted disease.

"Clovis Unified has great education for students," Aubree Smith said, "and this is an area where they can improve."

Clovis began using Teen Choices three years ago. It pays Shaw $37,000 a year to teach the sex-education course. The state reimburses the district his salary, district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.

Shaw, a former minister at Fowler Presbyterian Church, has a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master of divinity degree. He first wrote the curriculum for Fowler Unified when he served as school board president in the early 1990s. Shaw said the curriculum has been updated several times since, including in 2009 and 2010.

Shaw said his curriculum also is used in Fowler Unified schools, Washington Union High School and Washington Colony Elementary in Easton, Caruthers Elementary and Riverdale Unified, among others in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Mica Ghimenti, a Planned Parenthood health educator in Fresno, said Teen Choices uses outdated information about the success and failure rates of condoms, among other misinformation. Ghimenti has a daughter at Buchanan High School and two sons at Century Elementary School in Clovis, none of whom have gone through the Teen Choices program.

Smith of the Department of Education said a review of the Teen Choices programs in Dinuba and Selma found several problems, including "completely fabricated information in there which is all really based on scare tactics and has no basis in public health."

Marriage was taught as the expected outcome of all students, Smith said. And to teach "'abstinence-only until marriage' education is simply not permitted in California public schools."

Shaw stands by his curriculum.

"I don't know where they got the idea our information is not medically accurate," he said. "The most recent government research information I believe supports the statistics that we give on the effectiveness [of condoms]."

He acknowledged state officials found the programs in Selma and Dinuba placed too much emphasis on abstinence and marriage. The intent was not to offend or discriminate, he said.

"We want to be sensitive to everyone, regardless of those who get married, choose not to get married, whatever the case may be," he said. But he talks about marriage because most will choose to get married, he said. "Saying wait until you're in a committed relationship, such as marriage, seems to make sense to us."

Smith of the Department of Education said complaints she's received about the curriculum in Clovis parallel the concerns found in Selma and Dinuba.

"I would encourage Clovis Unified to definitely take a hard look at all their HIV education materials and make sure they meet requirements," Smith said.

Smith has not yet reviewed the Clovis curriculum, but it's on her radar, she said. Should a review find the program violates state law, the district would have 45 days to come into compliance, she said. The state can fine districts that don't make corrections.

Clovis parent Ghimenti said she expressed concern about Teen Choices at a school board meeting about a month ago, and the board directed the district to look into the issue.

Rick Watson, the district's administrator for professional development and curriculum, said the CUSD Family Life Advisory Committee will review the sex-education curriculum this fall and make recommendations to the district.

"I think we've been very open about our review process," he said.

District officials have tried to reach Department of Education officials to have an evaluation of the sex-education program, Watson said. Smith said she was unaware of any calls to her office from Clovis Unified.

Parents Ghimenti and Smith said while Watson has been receptive, they're not convinced the district will change the curriculum.

"I think if more people knew what their children are being taught, they'd demand a higher level curriculum," Smith said.

Staff writer Alex Tavlian contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at banderson@fresnobee.com, or (559) 441-6310.

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