By on October 22, 2014

Parents engage in respectful debate on sex education, but school board’s decision already final

Pam Stenzel

Pam Stenzel

Most of the full house at Tuesday night’s Warwick School Board meeting were not there for the advertised agenda. This gathering was sexually charged.

Last week’s news that a controversial speaker would be taking her abstinence program to middle and high school students in a Nov. 19 assembly, leaked to Lancaster media before the school district could inform parents, sparked a heated social media debate. Those who brought this dialogue to the meeting agree with the abstinence message; the divide is over the method.

Pam Stenzel, the nationally known speaker whose in-your-face tactics are in question, prompted an unusually active turnout at the regular monthly school board meeting. And while the board patiently listened to both sides of the discussion, irritation was evident afterward when the board’s prepared statement made it clear that the program was on, as planned.

“I personally do not feel heard by the school board right now, considering they had a prepared statement already printed up and ready to be read at the end of everybody’s well-thought-out presentations,” said Amy Van Scoten, a parent who urged the board to cancel the program. “The fact that they did not take any time at all to reconsider or to hear the voices who spoke here tonight is incredibly frustrating.”

Kathy Shaffer, another parent, concurred.

“I was very disappointed to find that the school board had a canned speech prepared to read at the end of the session,” she said, “and that they had obviously planned to go ahead with what they were going to do without looking into any of the objections that were posed, no matter how factual or intelligently researched.”

Loren Miller, a parent who spoke in favor of the program along with his wife Lisa, was encouraged by the respectful discussion that took place.

“Different perspectives, different ideas, common goal,” he said. “There was a lot of openness in there.”

During the meeting, eight parents on both sides of the discussion were given ample time to share their thoughts. Those against Stenzel’s visit believe her presentation is abrasive and geared toward shaming students. Those in favor cite her personal story as a teen rape survivor as a powerful and effective tool in guiding young people to make good choices.

“I am truly perplexed by the uproar in our community,” said Miller during his three minutes at the podium. “This is focused on the health, the education and the well-being of our kids. What parent here doesn’t want that?”

“I am absolutely not against teaching my child about abstinence,” Shaffer said in her address to the board. “That’s what we do, in my house. But we do it with a great deal of love, and with no shame. Pam Stenzel has a wonderful message, but she wraps it in shame … The rest of what she has to say is a moral values speech. I do that at home.

“I think the people who decided to bring Pam Stenzel in knew this was going to be a lightning rod for comment and discussion, and I think we really weren’t given enough time to talk about it.”

Van Scoten echoed that sentiment during her time before the board.

“There’s a strong lack of sensitivity that she has when she’s speaking to children,” she said.

She wanted to know how Stenzel was chosen and whether or not her views reflect those of the administration. The board opted to respond through their prepared statement. She also wanted to know what follow-up plan the district has in place to handle any emotional distress “some of the students will feel from hearing the anger and judgment that will be coming their way?”

The board did not have a response.

Dawn Rissmiller spoke passionately in favor of Stenzel’s visit. She talked about her son’s exposure to the “Rainbow Club,” a group of students she says engages in “inappropriate sexual activity.”

“This sounded very crude to me; however, this is my reality and my introduction to the Warwick Middle School,” she said.

She applauded the school district’s decision to bring in a dynamic speaker she feels can make a difference in the lives of children. And she reminded those in attendance that Lititz is “not Mayberry.”

“I don’t want my son’s life to be altered so greatly because he got a young lady pregnant … or, God forbid, he would catch an STD (sexually transmitted disease) and never have children,” she said. “That would completely break my heart.”

“Is it really that bad to have someone come in who has already been here before, successfully, and was so well received (Stenzel visited Warwick in 2006)? I don’t think so, and I appreciate that the school district is giving my child the option.”

Marie Firestone, a parent opposed to the Stenzel approach, read two points from a prepared speech.

“Inviting Pam Stenzel to present an ‘Abstinence Advantage’ sex education lecture in a public school is irresponsible and inappropriate,” she said in her opening remarks.

Her first point in support of that notion was Stenzel’s lack of valid statistical data.

“The body of peer reviewed published research from recognized medical, welfare and psychological experts is conclusive,” she said. “There is no evidence that abstinence-only programs delay sexual initiation or reduce STDs or pregnancy.”

“Second,” she continued, “the delivery of Ms. Stenzel’s message is both callous and demeaning. Her harsh voice intonation, mocking impersonation of teens and tendency to single out girls as the recipients of her intensity are not appropriate strategies for an educational setting.”

Laura Gibble, a parent who also has a master’s degree with an emphasis in human sexuality and adolescent development, was thankful for the open discussion, but opposed to the program.

“I’m extremely grateful and supportive of the district’s desire to address the complex and challenging issue of teenage sexuality,” she said. “However, I seriously question whether the presentation by Pam Stenzel is the most effective and appropriate way to begin to accomplish this.”

After viewing Stenzel’s entire video, Gibble found her presentation style “particularly harsh and abrasive, and actually felt battered by her constant yelling.”

“Most significantly,” she said, “I am concerned that she distorts, exaggerates and manipulates facts to make her case, using fear to motivate behavior. As educators, we should not be using fear to motivate behavior. We should be using good knowledge, factual information. Our students deserve better than what is in this presentation.”

 School district statement

The following prepared statement was read by school board president Timothy Quinn Tuesday night:

We thank all of you for attending our meeting this evening and sharing your perspective on the District’s plan to have Pam Stenzel present to our secondary level students and their parents in November.

We recognize the importance of providing meaningful information to our students about a topic that affects their overall safety and well-being. Obviously, this is a tough subject to address. We’ve heard comments from both sides of the issue &tstr; those who want the presentation canceled and those who want her to speak to our students and their parents.

It is unfortunate that before we could send informative letters with an opt-out component home to all of our secondary parents, Lancaster Newspapers published an article last week that cast a negative perspective on the topic and the presenter, using inaccurate information and snippets of video taken out of context.

Parents who shared concerns with us last week often referenced the inflamed and inaccurate information presented by the newspaper. Many of these families, when given the accurate information and an opportunity to discuss the issues, felt their concerns had been addressed. We do know that there will be parents and students who choose to opt-out of the event because of their own beliefs, etc. We respect these families for their decision; this provision has been part of the plan since its beginning.

As a district we have been hearing from many families about the need for a presenter who focuses on this topic, as an addition to our health curriculum at the high school that currently provides a comprehensive evidence-based sexual education program extending far beyond just abstinence. Our curriculum includes comprehensive information to students on pregnancy prevention and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. This curriculum is an alignment with the Pennsylvania State Standards for Health, Safety, Physical Education, and the National Health Education Standards, and holds standards focusing on the topics recommended by state and national associations and panels.

Our district is continually responsive to the needs of the Warwick community and family requests. Therefore, we intend to move forward in bringing the presenter to Warwick and having her present to our middle and high school students and their parents.

When Ms. Stenzel presented here several years ago we received overwhelmingly positive feedback and it was decided to bring her back. Many of our families who support this program have seen her present in the past or have watched her videos designed for public school audiences (not just the snippets provided in YouTube or other online sources).

We knew this topic, overall, would generate much energy within our Warwick community. Regardless of your views on this subject, we are grateful that this issue has been brought to the forefront, prompting conversations that may not have happened otherwise.

Stephen Seeber is the associate editor for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at sseeber.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4423.

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