When the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District approved the materials and presenters from Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic and teen center the R.E.C. Room at the Sept. 12 board meeting in Homer, they hit a milestone for the state.
KPBSD is the first school district in the state of Alaska to approve curricula, pamphlets, materials, websites and presenters in compliance with the requirements of House Bill 156, legislation that passed on July 28 concerning sexual health and reproductive education in schools, said Adolescent Health Project Coordinator for the State of Alaska Division of Public Health Jenny Baker, who did not know of any district given approval prior to KPBSD. Through this, KBFPC and R.E.C. Room staff are the first presenters in the state to receive approval under HB 156.
Juneau School District followed closely behind, and larger districts in Anchorage, MatSu, Bethel and Fairbanks are currently navigating the process of approving materials and community partners as well, Baker said. The law goes into effect on Oct. 26.
The law did not change who approves syllabi and curriculum — districts already have been doing that step — but it gave further requirements for districts to also approve teachers, presenters and all supplemental materials. It also requires parents are notified a minimum of two weeks prior to the topic being covered in the classroom. Essentially, the process of approval for sexual and reproductive health classes became more detailed.
KBFPC and the R.E.C. Room were prepared for the change by being ahead of the curve in many ways. KBFPC has been teaching in Homer area schools for approximately two decades, said KBFPC interim executive director and clinic director Catriona Reynolds. Though it started with guest speaking spots addressing HIV and AIDS at the high school, it has grown into a partnership involving several lessons each throughout the school year. The R.E.C. Room peer educators — high school students trained to teach about topics including sexual health and healthy relationships — work with adult R.E.C. Room staff to present on topics from dating violence and bullying to reproductive health.
Currently 12 lessons are given at Homer High School, 10 lessons at Homer Flex, five lessons for eighth graders at Homer Middle School and three lessons are given at the seventh grade level. The organization is also working with Seldovia and other rural schools in the area to give a five-hour-long course over one or two days.
Staff teaching in Homer schools were already following many of the regulations provided by the new law, but the bill tightens everything up for them and makes their processes more organized, said R.E.C. Room Youth Health Education and Program Manager Anna Meredith.
In addition to a parent letter, the R.E.C. Room holds a parent information meeting to discuss the material with parents and answer and questions and concerns. A meeting is set for Nov. 10 at 5:30 p.m. at Homer Middle School and parents of students can contact the R.E.C. Room via phone, email or Facebook to sign up. The staff encourages parents to call any time as well.
“We really want people who do have a misunderstanding or maybe they’re questioning what we’re doing to call us, because there’s so much misinformation about what we teach and how we teach it in the schools. We plan on reaching out more to people and we want to work with them because our biggest concern is the young people and their getting information that’s going to help them be as safe as possible,” said R.E.C. Room peer coordinator Doug Koester. “We can all agree that we want what’s best for the young people and because young people have different takes and viewpoints, our information is trying to help all of them, not just one particular group that believes one particular thing.”
A previous version of the bill excluded abortion service providers such as Planned Parenthood from participating in sexual education in Alaska schools, but the stipulation was removed before the law passed. At the Sept. 12 board meeting, a community member expressed concern about Planned Parenthood having a presence in schools. KBFPC wants the community to know that the organization is a local, independent, member-supported nonprofit with no affiliation with Planned Parenthood, nor do they provide abortions, Reynolds said.
When teaching in schools, the presenters do not share personal or moral values about sexuality with students, but instead encourage teens to honor their family’s values. For students who may not have a parental figure in their life, the staff instructs them to discuss values with a “safe adult” that they know.
“We teach that the values and beliefs of your family are the most important when it comes to sexual health and we encourage parents to effectively communicate those values and beliefs to their children,” reads the letter to parents of teenagers that the R.E.C. Room sends out to invite to informational meetings. “The values we do maintain in our classes are respect and kindness. That means we do not allow people to disrespect other people’s values or beliefs. We strive to make our class a safe place for everyone.”
Statistics related to sexual health courses state that fact-based, medically accurate, age and developmentally appropriate sexual health education can help reduce sexual abuse, assault, interpersonal violence, sexually transmitted infection and unintended pregnancy, according to a study done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in 2001 in Washington D.C. It also found that comprehensive sexual health education also delays sexual activity for many teens, despite fears among some that such education will cause teens to become sexually active.
Though a couple parents opt out their students from sexual health courses each semester, most students go through the evidence-based curriculum presented at Homer High, said athletic director Chris Perk, who works with the R.E.C. Room as the school’s liaison.
“If people are not wanting their students to get comprehensive education at Homer High School by trained professionals, they do have the option to opt out,” Perk said. “We send out a letter home about two weeks before the unit starts so it gives them time to have a conversation with their child and figure out how comfortable they are. There’s the R.E.C. Room’s number so they can talk to Anna Meredith and that’s been great for them to have a conversation and say I do want my kid to be a part of this.”
The curriculum has certainly changed, becoming much more in-depth since Perk attended Homer High about 25 years ago, he said. The classes give students confidence and information that can use to make safe decisions as they become adults.
“I believe for sure the teen pregnancy in our community has gone way down since the early 2000s,” Perk said. “I’d say we’re obviously on the cutting edge and leading the state on our curriculum. I imagine a lot of people are going to adopt the R.E.C. Room’s curriculum.”
Anna Frost can be reached at email@example.com.
Sexual health FAQs
Though the district must approve the curriculum and materials given to students in sexual health courses, educators are free to answer questions that come up in the classroom. Presenters provide a box for students to ask questions anonymously and then answers them to make sure students do not leave with unaddressed queries.
The following are samples of actual questions posed to R.E.C. Room staff by Homer students.
What is toxic shock syndrome?
A rare, life threatening complication of certain bacterial infection that can be caused by a tampon left inside the vagina for more than 8 hours.
What in Mountain Dew kills sperm cells?
The exact cause of a low sperm count cannot be determined. Every male is different and responds to the foods he eats and things he does differently. No research supports Mt. Dew killing sperm cells or lowering sperm count.
Does exercise affect PMS (premenstrual syndrom)?
Everyone is different. If you`re used to exercising it is totally fine to stick with it. You may feel like slowing down as your body may be sore, bloated, or uncomfortable, but walking and light exercise will most likely help if done gently.
If a friend is sexually active, how could you help prevent or help them to understand what it means to be sexual without making it a big deal?
Deciding to be sexual is a big deal. You could tell them that. Also you’re learning a lot in this sexual health class. You can share what you learn in this class because it’s all evidence-informed and factual. Maybe suggest going along with them to the R.E.C. Room/KBFPC or their health provider to talk to an adult about this.
No to sex?
Abstinence is the decision to not have sex, any kind of sex. Abstinence can be practiced after a person is sexually active too. It’s the only 100 percent effective way to avoid sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancies. Sex can cause complications in relationships so abstinence may be a healthy choice for you.
I have no questions.
Great! If you do, pop into the R.E.C. Room or KBFPC and we`ll help figure out who can help you, if not us!