Parents for Sex Ed Choice protest at Teen PEP Family Night

photo illustration: Severine Stier and Elizabeth Teng

photo illustration: Severine Stier and Elizabeth Teng

Five protesters made an appearance at Teen PEP’s annual Family Night on February 26, 2014. The protesters were part of a group called Parents for Sex Ed Choice, self-described on its Facebook page as a “community of parents concerned about the sex education HiTOPS offers teens.”

Teen PEP Family Night, an annual event designed to encourage open family discussions about sexuality, included skits on how parents and students could successfully address the topic.

The protesters, a handful of members of Parents for Sex Ed Choice, included two girls, their mothers, and Michael McClane, a Catholic priest. The leader of the group, Wai Far Bazar, was not in attendance.

The protesters stood near the entrance of the event, handing out pamphlets to incoming parents. The pamphlets explained that both the Sexual Risk Reduction (use of contraceptives) and the Sexual Risk Avoidance (abstinence) approaches should be offered in schools as two different choices that parents can make for their child’s health curriculum.

“Teen PEP instructors often use sexually-charged language and initiate and encourage graphic sexual discussions,” the pamphlet stated. “Teen PEP gives a false sense of security by inaccurately placing abstinence and condom use on equivalent planes.”

Teen PEP advisor Sheryl Severance said the current program maintains an appropriate balance between discussions of abstinence and recognition that most students will become sexually active at some point. “While we do stress abstinence all the time, we also talk about the moment when you choose to be sexually active and things you need to know before you engage in sexual activity,”  said Severance.

When the protesters went to the parent entrance, they were met by Elizabeth Walters, Director of Education at HiTOPS and co-writer of the Teen PEP program. “They’ve shown up at other [events] where we’ve been, so I wasn’t surprised to see them,” Walters said.

Walters invited the protesters to attend the event themselves. “They said they didn’t want to come. I suggested that it would be helpful to them to see what it was like, but they declined, so I just went in, and I let [principal Gary Snyder] know that they were there,” she said.

“Obviously, it’s important that they know what we’re doing in there. They’ve never actually seen a workshop, so it’d be important … for them to come in,” said Teen PEP member Mira Shane ’15.

After Snyder was notified of the protesters’ presence, he went outside to speak with them. Severance said, “I think a few parents were upset … and he asked [the protesters] to disperse because they were creating problems with the [students’] parents.”

The group left after speaking to Snyder.

Although this is the first time Parents for Sex Ed Choice has made an appearance at a Teen PEP event, the group has been present at previous PPS events, including freshman orientation, a program for eighth grade students and their parents. At these gatherings, the group also distributed pamphlets to the parents of the kids who were enrolled in the schools’ health curricula.

Executive Director of HiTOPS Elizabeth Casparian said the theme of the protests is abstinence. “The [protesters] are all about avoiding any kind of sexual behavior,” she said.

To justify Teen PEP’s Sexual Risk Reduction program, Casparian and Walters referenced statistics. “The evidence … suggests that abstinence-only programs are not effective,” Casparian said. “It doesn’t keep kids from having sex. Comprehensive sex education has been shown to help young people delay when they first start to have sex, and it also increases their intent to use protection when they decide to have sex,” she said, citing sources including Advocates for Youth and the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Although the Teen PEP workshops and health classes are the only sexual education programs at PHS, they are not mandatory.

“The parent has the right to look at the material, and, if they aren’t comfortable with it or believe it goes against their family values, they can have their child not participate in the class,” Casparian said.

Walters said that the Teen PEP scripts have been carefully written and revised multiple times. “We look at [the scripts] with a really critical eye because we don’t want people to get the wrong impression … [if we are careful], people are less likely to take a piece out [of context] and make it look like we’re doing something that we’re not doing,” Walters said.

She added that revisions are made only if they do not change the overarching message of HiTOPS and Teen PEP.

“We believe in kids having all the information before they begin having sexual behavior because otherwise, how do they get the skills so they know what to do? It’s like Driver’s Ed. Do we give you the keys to the car when you’re 17 without instruction? No, we try to prepare you for the day when you are [going to] get in that car,” Walters said.

Walters hopes the protestors will choose to learn more about HiTOPS and Teen PEP by attending events. “I just think, if you’re going to protest, you should be really well-informed. It’s very hard to read a curriculum and understand how it’s implemented,” she said. “I think they have a particular viewpoint, [and] I don’t think they’ll stop speaking out unless there is that change [in] direction they’re looking for.”