Representatives of a group of parents of Merrill Area Public School students have been watching the work of the committee charged by the Board of Education with updating the district’s Human Growth and Development (HG&D) curriculum. These parents are opposed to the district switching to a comprehensive curriculum mandated by a state law that went into effect in June.
The parents object to many portions of the new curriculum, including information on contraceptives, references to the “normalcy” of homosexuality as well as some other pieces of information that will be presented to students if the board approves the changes. They see the curriculum as intruding on areas best left to parents to teach their children and are not consistent with the religious and social mores of the Merrill community.
“Just because it’s in the schools and it’s a curriculum, doesn’t make it right,” said Karen Cournaya. “We want people to know what’s in it and let them decide.”
The group was founded last year before the law was changed, but the passage of the measure, which the group claim was spearheaded by Planned Parenthood, accelerated their efforts.
Mary Litschauer attended the 8th grade HG&D class her son attended in the spring of 2009 rather than opt him out. What she heard surprised her as she thought MAPS was an abstinence only curriculum.
“You can go into the office and look at a binder of what is being taught,” Litschauer said. “I did that, but for the STD class, I decided rather than opt him out, I’d go in and sit in the class. It was presented by a physician in tow. He had statistics, a PowerPoint about STDs. Going in there; I thought our school district was abstinence only. And when I sat there, he was saying talk to your parents, be open with your parents, be abstinent, then he talked about the failure rates of condoms and other methods of birth control.”
She said what the doctor said next was what upset her the most, however.
“He said ‘if I had an eighth grade boy come into my office on a Friday morning and say he was going to have sex that night with my girlfriend, should I use a condom? I would tell him yes.’ Right there it alerted me that they (the students) were receiving a mixed message,” she said.
Litschauer said that at the end of the presentation, which was made to a mixed classroom of boys and girls, that the doctor said there was five minutes for any questions the students might have, but no questions were asked. She said she thought that many of the children had been embarrassed by the information.
Cournaya said that while the STD presentation was made in 2009 to eighth graders, the parents group is not sure if the new curriculum will mean it will remain there or be presented to sixth graders. In either case, the parents feel this information is not age appropriate for middle school students to be receiving.
“We will find this out when it all comes out,” Cournaya said.
The committee charged with approving the new curriculum viewed and approved several videos and PowerPoint slides that may be shown to students as young as sixth grade all the way to high school. The parents who were at the meeting where the material was screened said that many of these were not age appropriate for even high school students, based on the graphic nature of some of the slides. The ones receiving the most objections were those from the Lincoln County Health Department showing the effects of many STDS.
“They could make the same point that these diseases are serious by showing just half of these slides,” said Randal Detert.
One of the videos, “The Miracle of Life” was one that Detert particularly objected to because it shows a thermal imaging picture of a penis becoming erect as blood flows into it.
“I found that offensive and our children have no business being exposed to that in school,” Detert said.
He and the other parents also objected to the microscopic views of ejaculation in the video, which follows the stages of human development from conception to birth. Because of the length of the video, it will most likely be shown in high school health classes.
After the law was passed by the legislature last spring, Litschauer attended a forum in Wausau on the impact it would have on HG&D education in the state. She said she was the only person from Merrill in the audience of the forum, including any MAPS officials.
It was about this time that Litschauer met Cournaya and the two tried to make their concerns known to MAPS administrators. They signed up to be on the HG&D committee and both said they were upset that agencies with ties to Planned Parenthood made presentations to the committee during meetings in the summer. Cournaya said the lifestyle choices implied by Planned Parenthood, including promiscuous sex outside of marriage and abortion on demand, among many others, does not mirror the community standards of Merrill, or its people.
They started a petition drive to try to convince the school board to opt out of the new curriculum for the 2010-11 school year to give the district time to fully explore the ramifications. They presented 315 signatures at the Sept. 8 board meeting, but the board decided to adopt the new requirement with the provision that parents will be allowed 45 days to review the new curriculum before it is taught the first time.
The parents in opposition are upset that School Board President Jeff Verdoorn and the rest of the board did not give much weight to the petition signatures. Verdoorn took the unusual step of disbanding the original HG&D committee and opening up the membership of the new one to a more diverse cross section of the community. He also sought to keep the committee free from any influence from groups like Planned Parenthood and limited administrative influence to an advisory capacity.
Detert said that while the intentions may have been good, the result has been nothing more than a rubber stamp for the new curriculum.
“The two people on the committee who have repeatedly raised objections have been overruled,” Detert said.
The parents group also feels that parents should have to opt their students into the HG&D classes by way of a permission form much like that used for field trips. Although the law gives parents the right to opt their children out if they object to the material, and does not mandate districts provide a form for parents to do so, the committee decided to draft such a form. MAPS administrators said an opt in provision would require too much work on the part of staff for the cash-strapped district to do, a claim the parents disagree with.
The shift from abstinence only to abstinence based curriculum was bad enough, the parents say. The comprehensive curriculum the new law requires goes too far and usurps parental authority and control. They would like to have either one or several community forums where parents could have the teachers of the new curriculum present the material they will be teaching in the manner they will in their classrooms to students. They also intend to speak during the public comment portion of next Monday’s school board meeting when the revised curriculum will be voted on by the board.
“We feel that we are not only being ignored by the school board but also mislead,” Detert said.
“We would like to see the data that shows how the new curriculum will lower STD rates, teenage pregnancy and sexual promiscuity,” Cournaya added.
In early December, the parents will show a video at the Cosmo Theater they say will show how the comprehensive HG&D curriculum will adversely affect students. If the new curriculum is approved next week, they hope to convince the board to opt out for the 2011-12 school year next September.
While the HG&D teachers at both PRMS and MHS have said they will continue to stress abstinence as the only 100 percent reliable method of preventing STDs and pregnancy, the parents say that the message will be lost in all the other information they will be receiving.
“A mixed message never works,” Cournaya said. “If parents knew what is really in this curriculum, we feel more parents would opt their children out.”
The school board meeting next Monday will be held in the MHS library and starts at 5:30 p.m. Citizens wishing to make public comment on the policy, either for or against, will be allowed to do so at the start of the meeting.