I’ve been meaing to talk about this. This story came to light a couple weeks ago. I first heard about it on the Caplis & Silverman radio show on KHOW. The Daily Camera has covered the story.
In April the Conference on World Affairs (CWA) held a few panel discussions at Boulder High School (BHS). They’ve been doing this since 1998. The CWA got started at the University of Colorado many years ago. They happen once a year for a week. I’ve been to a few of the university sessions over the years. I can’t remember all that they talked about. There were many panel discussions every day. The ones I went to had to do with foreign policy. From what I could tell the CWA was appropriate to the university atmosphere of openly discussing ideas. I was surprised to hear that the CWA was holding panels at BHS. I thought the subject matter would be too mature. In a way I think I was right.
One of the few panel discussions that was held at BHS this year was called “STDs: Sex, Teens and Drugs”. The BHS panels are reportedly selected and organized by BHS students. I believe one or two teachers are involved as well. From what I’ve read, CWA panels on sex have been held for the past couple years at least.
What follows are my summaries and quotes based on a transcript of this event from BVSDWatch.org. This site was started last year when the school district’s Information Technology Department decided to replace Apple Macintoshes in the schools with Windows PCs. Its stated purpose is to be an advocacy group that champions greater openness on the part of the school district.
The BHS CWA panelists were: Sanho Tree, a fellow and director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Drug Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.; Andee Gerhardt, a community engagement leader with Ernst & Young’s International Accounting Firm in the Americas; Joel Becker, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Department of Psychology and at the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA; and Antonio Sacre, an award-winning storyteller and performing artist from L.A.
Ironically, even though the title of the panel suggests the main subject was going to be STDs, the panel hardly talked about it at all. Keep in mind as you read this that this was a school assembly where attendance was required.
First up was Sanho Tree. I liked what Tree presented. He tried to relate a message to the teens in the audience, but he spoke responsibly. This was his second appearance at a CWA panel on sexuality. He talked about the worrying prospect of drug testing for after-school activities, and how unproductive it would be. Probably his most controversial statement was his opinion that the drug war has failed, and that society needs a different strategy for fighting drug abuse. He then criticized the DARE program of drug use prevention, saying it tries to scare kids away from drugs by exaggerating the problems. This has a “cry wolf” effect when kids realize the exaggerations are not true, and then it causes them to question the whole anti-drug message. I’ve heard other criticisms of DARE in years past, that it’s actually increased drug use with teens, despite having an overall negative message about them. Tree criticized popular culture for exaggerating the benefits of drugs (like alcohol). He pointed out that alcohol is not necessarily glamorous.
Next was Andee Gerhardt. She talked about her real world experience of drug use, and the negative consequences it had on her life. She talked about the economic effects of making bad decisions in your teen years, and what the economy will be like in 3 years. She said something about college graduation rates, and I’m not sure if it’s correct. She said that 18% of freshmen in high school graduate from college. First of all, I don’t know if that fits well semantically. Secondly, I wonder if she was talking about high school graduates. That would make more sense. This is the same statistic I heard when I was in college in the early 1990s. Who knows. Maybe it’s gotten better since then.
Gerhardt closed with something I would’ve said differently though:
So I guess I just want to impart, you know, this: find some balance with the, you know, having the fun and experimenting and enjoying what you’re doing, whether it’s learning, or sexually, or with drugs and alcohol and hanging out with your friends, but keep focused because it is your life, and eventually your parents don’t bail you out, and eventually you’re going to have to do it on your own.
The next two speakers were the most controversial, because they got more into “the sex thing”, and they didn’t do it responsibly, in my opinion.
First up was Joel Becker. If nothing else he came off as a teenager. Here were some of the bombs he set off:
I’m going to dovetail off a little bit of what Andee said, but I think I’m going to go in a little bit of a different direction, because I’m going to encourage you to have sex, and I’m going to encourage you to use drugs appropriately. And why I’m going to take that position is because you’re going to do it anyway. So, my approach to this is to be realistic, and I think as a psychologist and a health educator, it’s more important to educate you in a direction that you might actually stick to.
He went on:
I want to encourage you to all have healthy sexual behavior. Now what is healthy sexual behavior? Well, I don’t care if it’s with men and men, women and women, men and women, whatever combination you would like to put together.
He sobers up some here:
But I think that we know enough about what constitutes healthy sexual behavior to think about it along two lines. One is, the issue of health and disease. So all the information that you can get about the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, you should have. . . . We were handed this survey that was done here at the high school, and one very shocking statistic that came to me was, and actually the people that compiled it missed something here, there was a question: ‘have you had sex?’ and 33 percent of the respondents–and I guess this goes all the way from the ninth grade to the twelfth grade so we’d expect it to be lower in the ninth grade, higher in the twelfth grade–33 percent; so a third of you copped to having sex. How many were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when you had sex? Eight. That would be 8 of the 15, which is actually more than 50 percent, because they saw it was what percent of the total, its over 50 percent of you who are having sex under the influence of alcohol and drugs. If you look at the AIDS transmission literature, this is a major route of transmission. People having sex under the influence because you get careless, and you get sloppy. So that’s very important to look at that relationship between those two variables.
Interesting choice of words in a couple places…
Here he gets wishy-washy:
So, what else do I mean by having healthy sexual behavior? I think that we also want to have a definition of healthy sexual behavior as sexual behavior that is appropriate to your level of emotional development. Now what does that mouthful mean? Well, I’m not sure that ninth graders, tenth graders, eleventh graders, and twelfth graders are all exactly equal. In fact I’m fairly sure you’re not, in your level of emotional development in terms of what you can handle. And if you think that having sex doesn’t come with feelings, that’s where you’re mistaken. Sex does come with having feelings, and that’s what you have to be prepared for.
Whatever this means. How is a teenager going to be able to determine on their own whether they’re emotionally ready or not? Let’s be realistic here. I agree with the part where he says “sex comes with feelings”, but the rest of it was worthless.
Some parents would have a problem with this part:
I’ve been told that this is a very liberal high school, and I’m probably speaking to the choir by encouraging you to have healthy sexual behavior because most of your parents probably have given you similar views, but you know, when you are 13, 12, 13, 14, certainly one of the most appropriate sexual behaviors would be masturbation. Masturbate. Please masturbate.
I for one have no problem with this message. This probably is not stated in a health class sex-ed course, because some people have moral compunctions about it. I think it is healthy for kids who are discovering their sexuality to masturbate. It’s far more healthy and safe than any kind of sex with some random person. So Becker won a point with me on this part.
He then went on to criticize Jewish, and I guess Christian tradition, whom some adherents believe says that masturbation is a sin. He didn’t criticize the Bible itself, that I could detect, but the traditions that arose from it. He ended that part with:
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and it doesn’t even address the issue of masturbation in women. So, it’s not a sin to masturbate in my world.
I think children and parents who are steeped in particular religious traditions would have a real problem with Becker, here, because it appears he’s trying to lead students away from the Judeo-Christian traditions that say masturbation is a sin.
He talked about the emotional aspects of sex, or lack thereof, between boys and girls, but he went about it in a childish way. It’s hard to know if this was intentional or just the best he could come up with. He started off talking about Sigmund Freud and his study of sexuality, and then went into how girls feel about sex versus how boys feels about it. He threw in:
We older people make jokes and say teenage boys will stick their you-know-what in a melon. I mean, that’s about as much feeling as they need to have for the object. And after it’s over, it can be as meaningless as you could imagine. So you have to all be prepared for those differences between the two of you.
He closed with:
So what I’m saying here, and then I’ll wrap up, I encourage you to have a healthy sex life that is both responsible and appropriate for what you can handle emotionally.
Okay. Whatever. Notice there’s no discussion of what it’s like to find a loving partner, getting married, etc. It wouldn’t have to be religious either. Becker’s whole focus is on promiscuous sex and what you have to watch out for. From what I remember there was no discussion, or very little, of marriage in health class when I took it at BHS. There was discussion about monogamy, and how it decreases the likelihood of spreading STDs. I don’t know if they still do this, but I remember there was some sort of school activity set up every year where a boy and a girl in the school would go through a mock wedding, just as one of those “dress rehearsals” for life.
Next up was Antonio Sacre. He started off with some charming anecdotes, winning over the audience. He talked about what life was like for him in the 1980s (I could relate). He turned his story into him talking to himself when he was 15, using the word “you” to refer to himself then. It sounded like something out of the movie “American Pie”. He talked all about his early sex life, from getting Playboys and condoms from his dad, doing a “truth or dare” stunt with his “hunka hunka burning love”, his first experience with masturbation, and his first wet dream. He said, “You at 15, little Antonio, should have waited to have sex.” At least that part even an abstinence teacher would’ve loved, but then he gets into his first attempt at a sexual encounter with a “super hot junior”, when her mother comes home and interrupts them, and he describes the trauma of being confronted by the mom, and him trying to escape the house. He then describes a second attempt with the same girl, and how afterwards she thinks she might be pregnant, but it turns out to be a false alarm. He said, “From that day on, you swear you will always use condoms.” Okay. Weird. Inappropriate, but at least there’s a moral to the story.
But then, he starts describing condoms:
They’re tricky. And even though in your teens, even when your 16 and 17, you could have thousands of erections, sometimes 50 in a day, and you know because you counted. The act of putting on a condom, for me at least, makes me lose my erection almost every time. That’s the thing they don’t tell you about condoms. If you’re lucky enough to get them on, and you still stay hard, it’s hard to stay hard. And it doesn’t feel as good. And sometimes you hurt the woman because you can’t feel her, because you didn’t know, when you were 16, that lubrication like KY helps you stay hard and makes her feel better. And I know how hard it is to talk like that to a girl. It’s even hard now for me as an adult. So I don’t know how it is for you to be able to say so.
Man, I can imagine parents getting really pissed at that passage.
Then he describes how he stopped using condoms because his now girlfriend said she was going on the pill, and then he gets a venereal disease. He describes how he goes to the doctor and they do a test on him. He closes with a story about how he, as a senior, fell in love with a girl, had a sexual relationship with her, and she got pregnant because she forgot to take her pill from time to time. He eloquently implies, but doesn’t directly describe her having an abortion. He describes his feeling of loss about that decision, that he lost that “opportunity” to be a father at 17.
I can imagine elements of this story being used in a health class section on the mistakes that sexually active teens can end up making, but some of it was too graphic to be appropriate for that audience, which included some 14-year-old children. I think his heart was in the right place, but the story was too mature, in my opinion. He actually illustrates what Becker was talking about earlier.
They then went to the Q&A session.
The first question was about kids 11 and 12 years old having sex, and why that is. Joel Becker answered with:
That’s a really good question. I don’t think there is an easy answer. I think it’s probably a combination of what you’re exposed to in the media, probably it comes also from a lack of good parenting in some situations, absent parents, and probably from a lack of ability to attend educational panels like this.
Really? So 11 and 12-year-olds should hear this discussion? I think he’s right about the media, but I don’t think even 11 and 12-year-olds would understand most of what’s talked about here.
Another student asked about the effects of drugs on society, and the history of drug use. Sanho Tree gave an eloquent answer about drug history, and described how shamanic traditions in ancient cultures used drugs in a controlled manner as part of their spiritual practice. He said this shamanic tradition kept drugs from being abused. He said he wished we had some way of replicating that in our society, as opposed to using “police control” over drugs. I don’t know how that would happen. I don’t see in our society any structure by which that could work. We’d have to replicate shamanism of a sort, and I’ve never seen our society do that while I’ve been alive, or in our history. But overall I thought what he said was instructive.
Becker dropped some more bombs, this time on drug use, starting with his answer for everything, “if you’re emotionally ready for it.” Again, how is a teenager supposed to know?? He said:
And there’s no question that people’s worlds are changed after their consciousness is changed. Well, you have to really sort of think, am I ready to have my world changed? I’m 14 years old. Maybe I’m not ready to see what one sees on LSD.
Uh, yeah. I’d think you weren’t. And how would a 14-year-old have the first clue about whether they’re “ready” for LSD?? Later in his response he says:
There’s a very famous man named Timothy Leary at Harvard who did therapy with LSD. Even today, there are psychiatrists who will do sessions under the influence of ecstasy. If I had some, maybe I’d do it with somebody, but I don’t, you know. I haven’t tried it but there are people that do it.
Oh really? I’m sure the DEA would be very interested in finding out who he knows that does this. Sheesh! Again, talk about inappropriate material for the audience!
Sanho Tree then gave an answer that I think would horrify caring parents:
And also, I want to add quickly, you know, I’m 42 years old, and if I could talk to myself, as Antonio said, if I could talk to myself back then I would say, I would tell myself, some of you in this audience aren’t going to make it to this age. Some of you are going to die from overdose, some of you are going to die in car accidents, under the influence perhaps, some of you are going to contract HIV or hepatitis C, and it will be a slow, painful illness, and some of you may commit suicide because you try to self-medicate yourself with illicit drugs rather than seeking help from people who would know what they’re doing.
Then Becker comes back with:
I could add onto that, because I’m older than Sanho, and I’m a member of that generation, so you know, LSD was my drug of choice in college, and I lost a lot of friends. I had one friend who jumped out of a third story window. He thought he could fly. That’s just one example. So, with non-responsible use, I think what Sanho says, some of you just won’t be there.
Yeah, especially if you listen to his advice. Becker is a riot. He dispenses this “it’s up to you” advice, and then says, “I lost a lot of friends” to drugs. Let me tell you something. The company you keep says something about you. In my entire life I’ve had 1 friend who committed suicide. None of my life-long friends has used drugs at any time in their life. One slept around some when he was younger, though he kept it to a minimum. I’m not holding myself out as some moral paragon. I’m saying that not everybody has “lost a lot of friends to drugs”, to contrast with what Becker said. And the fact that he has lost so many friends to irresponsible behavior should cause one to take his advice about life with a large grain of salt.
In my opinion this was one of the worst parts of the panel discussion. It was so fatalistic. There are other ways of explaining these things to kids that are factual and clinical. There’s no need to make it personal and about personal values. There is a way to get it across using standard instructional methods, and the kids will get it. Secondly, they could put forth some positive messages for once, maybe give the kids an idea of what they can do with their lives besides do drugs. At least Gerhardt tried to do that.
Another student asked about the abuse of prescription drugs. Becker’s attitude towards the whole session comes out in his answer to this question: “Change your parents.” He elaborated by saying that a lot of people in their parents’ generation (the students’ parents) have bought into what the pharmaceutical companies have been selling, which is “take a pill for everything”, even when you want to change your mood or behavior in social situations. Actually, Becker gave his best answer of the session here. I wish he had been this good throughout the whole thing. Sanho Tree gave a good answer as well. The message was that you don’t need drugs to alter this or that about you. You can do it better using other, healthier methods. Amen to that! Kind of curious why they didn’t say the same thing about illicit drug use.
Another student asked about taboos about sex and drugs, drugs for depression, and the connection between sex and feelings. I felt a little down when I read this. Hasn’t this student talked to his/her (I couldn’t determine the gender from the transcript) parents about this connection between sex and feelings? Is there some sort of lack of communication? Has he/she even talked to a school counselor about it?
Becker answered, but not very well. He said “it’s all individual”, and that he couldn’t tell you if you were 14, 15, or 16 whether you were ready for sex or not. He said:
There would have to be some sort of self-assessment. It would be great if that was part of a curriculum in health education where you would be able to look at, am I really emotionally prepared to do x, y, and z?
I can tell you for sure there’s a reason that health classes don’t get into this, because parents would object ferociously. You know, it strikes me that in a way this panel turned into a (bad) group therapy session, and that’s what’s inappropriate about it. On sensitive subjects like this, particularly for this audience, it’s better to have one-on-one therapy, rather than “group think” answers like this.
As for drugs and depression, Becker gave a good answer: some people have real disorders that need to be treated with medications. Simple.
Another student asked about abstinence education, and whether it damages students’ knowledge about sex. Andee Gerhardt made a fair attempt at an answer. I think she makes a good point that abstinence is fine “as long as you’re educated about that in relation to the truth about not being abstinent.” She made an interesting point:
It sort of goes back to the 10 and 11 year olds having sex. Are they doing it because they think that they don’t have an option to not have sex? So, there’s a balance.
Becker gave a good answer, saying that in studies of students educated in abstinence they found that those who had chosen abstinence and those who hadn’t had the same level of STD rates (I don’t know how that worked…how can you get an STD if you’re abstinent?), because they didn’t know how to use condoms. They weren’t taught how to use them. Those who stuck to abstinence until marriage tended to marry earlier, which leads statistically to higher divorce rates. He said if you marry before you’re 25, the divorce rate is 80%. He then said this, which I’m sure parents would’ve objected to:
If you make the choice of abstinence, you’re then still obligated to learn about what to do if it should happen, and to also think about all the ramifications of waiting to have sex.
The ramifications? Like, “Oh, I guess I should have sex with my boyfriend/girlfriend, because if I don’t I’m going to get into a bad marriage.” What kind of message is that? That’s just going to encourage teens to have sex before they’re ready. I know it must be hard for kids, but the idea is to wait until you find the man or woman you can truly spend the rest of your life with, marry him/her, and then have a truly healthy sexual relationship. One of the hardest things you’ll master as a human being is your own sexuality. This is true whether you’re married or not. This idea that you should probably engage in sexual activity even with a person you don’t love, because you’ll just get yourself in hot water if you don’t is a false choice. Yet Becker just lays it out there, implicitly, as an option. Again, I think he’s being real irresponsible here. The big thing I sense is missing here is that parents really need to provide guidance to their kids about this issue. It doesn’t have to be about sexual reproduction. What I’m talking about is the importance of finding a good partner, someone who really cares about you, and you care deeply about, and only having sex with that person. Most of all parents need to teach their children what true love is, by giving them the love and attention they need when they’re young (I’m talking from the time they’re infants to age 7). It’s a bit late by the time they’re a teenager, but better late than never.
After having said this I realize I’m leaving some people out: those who are gay. Personally I’m not opposed to gay people being able to marry or have civil partnerships. That isn’t the law right now, so I understand you’re left out in the cold in this regard. I think if getting married or entering a civil partnership is a gay person’s way of pursuing happiness, the state should support it. It will promote monogamy, which is the best way to prevent the spread of STDs, promoting greater general health. There. I said it.
Sanho Tree gave a fairly reasoned response against abstinence-based education, but then he said this, which really puzzled me:
We all experiment. It’s very natural for young people to experiment with same-sex relationships. Perhaps you don’t talk about it much. A lot of people experiment and never go on to become homosexual. They go on and lead very productive lives, etcetera, etcetera.
I used to hear it was natural for young people to have homosexual feelings or thoughts. It was just a transitional psychological phase in realizing their own gender identity. I never heard about it getting to the point where kids would try out same-sex relationships, and that it was “natural”. Saying “natural” makes it sound common. I don’t think it is. But hey, if you’ve done that, but went on to become heterosexual, I’m not going to say that’s wrong or anything. To each his/her own.
A student asked about the legalization of drugs. Sanho Tree gave a decent rationalization for the legalization of some drugs (not all), though I imagine that parents will be upset that this was discussed at all. Sanho didn’t say anything about breaking laws. He took a critical look at what effect our policies have on society. Becker, being what by now I can only say is his usual irresponsible self said:
I would also vote for the legalization of most drugs. I think that we’re missing a real opportunity here to regulate something in a way that will work a lot better. I happen to live in the state of California in the city of Los Angeles, which has been described as America’s Amsterdam. We have legalized medical marijuana in the state of California. There are 110 marijuana clubs in the city of Los Angeles. There was an article on the cover of the Los Angeles Magazine that said ‘When Did LA Become, Like, the Capitol of Marijuana, Like, in the US?’ And it is. If you want to get marijuana in the city of Los Angeles, all you’ve got to do is go to a doctor who will write you a ‘script. You go to a club. You go and you buy somewhat regulated production marijuana so you know you’re not getting stuff with chemicals in it. They not only sell marijuana, they sell hash, they sell baked goods. We have brownies, we have cookies, all the things you might want, so come on over.
I imagine parents would be irate at this sort of talk, regardless of whether marijuana is “legal” in L.A. or not. In addition Becker exposed the truth of the medical marijuana law in California. In effect it’s legalization, with one hoop to go through. You get a prescription from your doctor (at least you’re supposed to by law), and you go to a “marijuana club”, and get your dose. But Becker makes it sound as easy as finding a corrupt doctor (who I guess aren’t too hard to find) who will write you a prescription for no reason at all, and you can get your stash. The law was passed to make it so that people with certain ailments that marijuana could actually help with, could get it legally. From what I’ve been hearing it’s turned into general legalization, in effect. Becker confirmed it.
Another student asked about the effects of alcohol vs. marijuana. Gerhardt gave a good answer, talking from her own experience, saying she didn’t endorse either one. Both had their downsides. Sacre gave an OK answer, talking about his experience, mainly about gauging what his body could tolerate as far as alcohol. He talked about some experiences his friends had with marijuana. Each had different reactions. He gave sort of a mixed message here, again proving the point that “medical marijuana” in California is just legalized marijuana:
When you get to 21, see how your body reacts to alcohol. You know. And when you move to Los Angeles, see how your body reacts to marijuana, you know.
Tree talked about the violence associated with alcohol abuse, and the effects of marijuana. He said that when you’re under the influence of marijuana “You’re a vegetable. It’s not good for your motivation”. I think that’s a decent message.
This part was totally unnecessary. Sacre added:
Just from a personal point of view, alcohol—maybe it’s proven or not—but I know alcohol effects my sexual ability. So it’s embarrassing to be out on a date with a lovely woman and have a couple of beers, and if, you know, we’re moving towards that—and to be unable to perform is a little embarrassing.
Yeah, like teens are really going to need to know this. Wouldn’t want any of them to be over at the house of a “super hot junior”, you know, and “not be able to perform”. Comments like this are just inexcusable. It’s inappropriate to the audience. Save it for the college crowd, guys.
Becker gave a good, responsible answer on the biological effects of marijuana. I don’t get this guy. Some of his answers were good and informative. His other answers were just awful, giving mixed up messages to the audience, particularly about sex. He said he was going to mainly talk about sexuality, since that’s what he knows more about. I thought his answers on drugs were far better than his answers on sex.
One of the last questions was one that a lot of us have heard about: “Would you have sex with someone you liked but he doesn’t love you?”
The transcript says there were sighs and groans from the panel. All of them answered “Yes”. Sacre clarified by saying he’s been devastated by having sex with a woman who didn’t love him. But he’s had other encounters that were the same, and they were “the best he’s had”. He went on:
And I’ve had sex with women that I didn’t love. And know as an adult, I am, I am able to say to a woman—and I know that when you’re older it’s a little bit different, probably—if we want to, we’re going to have sex, and she’ll say, ‘Where is this leading?’ and I’ll say, ‘Nowhere. We can have sex tonight, and if you’re not comfortable with that, then I don’t need to have sex.’ When I was a teenager, I would sometimes feel like I would die if I wouldn’t have sex. But now, it’s, like, you know what? It’s okay. We can have a great time tonight.
Hmm. Great role model (not).
Gerhardt said that in her experience it didn’t matter. It felt the same to her whether she loved the man she was with or not.
The last question (or statement) of the session was another one we’ve heard some about. This was said by Daphne White, who’s been in the news lately:
Hello. It’s actually really hard for me to get up and say this, but I feel like I have to. So, I’m extremely offended, and just by some of the things you say, and I think it’s important to understand even though this is Boulder High School, there are people who are on that have different views, and I think that this discussion has been fairly one-sided. Sorry. But some of the things that offended me were just that I think it’s inappropriate to discredit religious views on some of these issues. And I know that, Mr. Becker, you discredited abstinence, and this is something that a lot of people feel very strongly about, and I just want everyone to know that there are two sides to the argument, even though this has been fairly one-sided. And also, I noticed that you were taking some of these serious issues to be humorous, and I think that, if anything, kind of encouraging teens to kind of the opposite of what I thought this panel was supposed to be about, encouraging teens to be abstinent. So I would just state that I think that the panelists need to think about what messages they came to send. (the rest was indecipherable)
Gerhardt and Becker did a good thing by not coming back hard and being critical at Daphne, but rather validated her courage to speak her mind. Becker toned down his usual rhetoric in his response, saying that he didn’t mean to demean abstinence as a choice. He was being critical of the abstinence programs as they’re currently structured, because he said they don’t educate kids about sex. He said:
I think you’re very right for you. And I think that all the people who believe like you are right for them. But I don’t want you to tell the other people that what they are doing is wrong.
Well, at least the guy has a heart. I can tell that. I just don’t think he understood the audience he was speaking in front of. I found his comments on sex generally to be inappropriate to the audience. I would say the same about Sacre’s comments as well, though he had his moments when he was doing well.
I used to hear parents lament that children are being forced to grow up too fast. This panel encouraged just that. “Do it when you’re ready”. There’s no sense of appealing to an authority figure that they trust in their lives to help them gauge whether they’re ready or not. Research has shown that teenagers are about as impulsive in their behavior as 2-4 year-olds. You wouldn’t trust a 4-year-old to make decisions on their own, would you? Yes, teenagers need to learn about decision-making, but under a parent’s watchful eye. Responsible parents need to be the ones determining how much freedom and control over their own lives their teens deserve. Just as small children can get themselves into deep trouble that can ruin the rest of their lives, so can teenagers attempting to go it alone.
The Boulder Valley School District superintendent decided this past Wednesday to keep the Conference on World Affairs at BHS. Earlier, Boulder Valley School Board President Helayne Jones, who initially called this CWA panel “a huge mistake”, said recently that she was misled by a “vocal minority with a political or religious agenda”. She said they misrepresented what was happening in our schools. She said, “While there are portions that are more graphic than I would have preferred, the overall message of the session was not to encourage students to have sex and do drugs. The overall message was for responsible decision-making.” Er, yeah, but it encouraged the students to decide everything on their own. The full article on this is at one of the links I have towards the top of this post.
I don’t get this reaction. When Patricia Priscilla White, Daphne’s mother, read some quotes from this panel to the Boulder School Board, Board President Helayne Jones stopped her after she heard some of what was said, presumably because she considered it offensive. Mrs. White tried to continue, saying, “If the students of Boulder High can hear this, you can too,” but Jones insisted she stop. Now Jones says it was all okay. My, we have a capacity for denial, don’t we.
I went to BHS 20 years ago. I remember we had a couple assemblies with guest speakers or performers where a few inappropriate things were said. They were rare, isolated incidents. Each time this happened though, the next day our principal released a statement to the students apologizing for these things, saying that the school administrators had reviewed the event before it happened, and informed the guests of the school’s guidelines of appropriateness, and that perhaps they were misunderstood. Each time as well the statement said that had there been more inappropriate things said by the guest during the assembly, the principal would have personally stopped it early. The principal attended each assembly. That was then. The rules have most definitely changed. From what I understand, no apology has been issued by the school board or the BHS principal. And just to show how entrenched this point of view is, Linda Shoemaker, a former Boulder School Board president, said she thought this panel was just fine for the students (find the last letter to the editor on the linked page).
The school district has adopted new rules for the CWA conferences. Notes will be sent home to parents in the future, giving them the option to opt-out their students from attendance. Personally I think the panels should be opt-in. Opt-out I assume means if the parent doesn’t respond, the student is still required to go.
The sense that I get, reading the pro-CWA reaction to this, is the reason some prominent people in town have come to this panel’s defense is a direct response to the Bush Administration’s promotion of abstinence education in the public schools. They feel that not enough about sex is being taught to the students, and that forums like this are a “supplement” to the official sex education. They feel strongly enough about it they’re willing to overlook the inappropriate comments made on the panel, because they think, “This is better than no supplemental education”. I feel like this is an overreaction, though. From what I understand, the sex-ed curriculum at BHS is not an abstinence training program. So what are they missing out on by just having that?
Update 6/1/07: The O’Reilly Factor is the only nationally broadcast show I’ve heard of that is covering this. Dan Caplis of the Caplis & Silverman radio show on KHOW was on the Factor yesterday, and he said that the State of Colorado mandates abstinence sex-ed in the schools. Assuming BHS is obligated to follow those rules, my assumption above that the sex-ed at BHS is not abstinence-based is probably wrong.
I think abstinence is a good thing for unmarried teens to practice, but I also think, as Gerhardt said, that they deserve to know the truth about what they need to do if they are not abstinent. Some people consider this a mixed message as well: “We encourage you not to have sex, but if you do…”. I think that the sex-ed I had when I went to BHS was good, because it incorporated some messages about abstinence, but it talked about almost everything else as well, and it didn’t sound like a mixed message. The one exception was masturbation. Sex-ed didn’t talk about that at all, but then it was assumed at that time that, “No one needs to tell them about that. They already know what it is.”
The message we got from sex-ed 20 years ago was, “This is what sex is about: reproduction. This is how it works. These are sexually-transmitted diseases (and what that means), and here are the means available to protect yourself from them, no matter what kind of sex you’re engaged in. If you contract one of these diseases, here is how they are treated (if that’s possible). Some STDs are incurable. These are contraceptives against pregnancy. Here’s how you should use them if you engage in intercourse. Just because a girl is taking ‘the pill’ does not mean men boys don’t need to wear condoms. This protects against pregnancy and STDs. Monogamy is one of the ways you can protect yourself against STDs. The safest sex is no sex. If you want to be absolutely sure you will not get pregnant or catch an STD, don’t engage in sexual activity.” There was also a session with school counselors about dealing with romantic relationships in your teens. That was it in a nutshell. The emphasis was on anatomy/biology, and health issues. It did not get into values. The emphasis was on if you choose to engage in sexual activity. As I indicated there were some messages encouraging teens to not have sex. There were certainly no messages encouraging teens to have sex. There were some things implied but never said, but I’m sure we all got it anyway: We are not going to get involved in your personal life. That’s between you, your partner (if you have one), and your parents. We are going to arm you with all the information you need to understand the consequences of your actions, if you engage in sexual activity. I thought this was a good approach, because then if us teens were thinking of becoming sexually active, we at least had the opportunity to think about what that really means. It’s knowledge that we were able to use later in life as well so we didn’t go into adulthood ignorant of some things. Not all high school graduates go on to college. While universities offer sex-ed classes of their own (the one I went to did, anyway), not everyone takes them. They’re optional.
Sex-ed in high school is not, and should not, be a means of getting teens to become sexually active. It’s the last institutional opportunity they have to get educated about their own bodies before they go out into the real world.