This week, ninth-graders at Kalispell Junior High School (KJHS), finish an intensive three-week study of sex education as part of their health curriculum. This is the last sex education they’ll get in the local public school system and, according to their teachers, the last most will ever get.
Part of the course involves Student Peer Abstinence Movement (SPAM) and Flathead Reproductive Health Services (FRHS), a branch of the Flathead City-County Health Department, offering two ideologically divergent presentations on birth control and STD prevention.
SPAM employs Flathead High School junior and senior volunteers to teach abstinence until marriage as a form of birth control and STD prevention. Kalispell parent Sue Vaughan started the program in 2000 after seeing a Spokane Peer Abstinence Movement presentation. She runs it with the help of Flathead High School business teacher and football coach Grady Bennett. This year, they say, about 30 students volunteered to take a four-hour abstinence class, then visit eighth-graders at schools throughout the valley and the ninth-graders at KJHS.
Funding for SPAM follows a complicated path. The federal government gives money to the state for abstinence-only education, which is then applied for by nonprofit organizations, which in turn distribute the money to programs like SPAM. In November, Gov. Brian Schweitzer proposed routing the state’s money directly to county health departments, which could then distribute it to abstinence programs of their choosing. The federal government has yet to sign off on the proposed change.
According to FRHS Director Wendy Doely, the county has no money directly earmarked for FHRS’s presentation, but FHRS itself is funded mostly through donations and fees charged for reproductive services, with some assistance from the federal government.
Doely goes into the school the day after SPAM’s visit and presents an array of contraceptive choices to the same students who have just been told that abstinence is their only viable option. Her message is that abstinence is their best protection, but if they choose to engage in sex anyway, they’d best employ other forms. She also points out that the information she’s making available will prove just as useful post-marriage, as her audience may not want to get pregnant every time they have sex.
Doely’s presentation starts with a 15-minute Planned Parenthood-produced video depicting a multiracial cast of New York City teens having frank discussions about sex in same-sex classes of no more than eight students. She follows this with a 30-minute technical discussion of methods of birth control and STD prevention.
SPAM’s presentation mostly uses short skits developed by the high school students. Neither presentation addresses the other’s approach, and in interviews afterward, Doely and Vaughan agree that each message is important.
Both presentations end the same way, with a question and answer period in which few questions are asked.
But Friday, with Doely and SPAM gone, teens in health teacher Mary Critchlow’s class have their hands in the air, and occasionally blurt out questions and comments before they’re called on.
“What if I don’t get married until I’m like 45?” one girl asks, wondering if marriage is the appropriate bar to set for sex.
“What if I wait until I’m married and then we end up getting a divorce?” another girl asks.
Critchlow acknowledges that things don’t always work out perfectly, but shies away from advising the teens on whether or not marriage is the only appropriate scenario for sex.
Another student comments on the SPAM presentation, saying, “They talk about sex like it’s some kind of sin.”
Critchlow asks the rest of the class if they agree with this assessment. Almost all say they do.
“That’s the easiest way to tell kids to [not have sex],” one student says. “They don’t trust us to have safe sex.”
Critchlow calls on another student whose hand is raised. She pauses before saying what’s on her mind.
“I don’t think that sex and love should be attached so closely,” she says. “You shouldn’t have sex because you’re in love, and having sex doesn’t mean you’re in love.”
Critchlow lets this observation stand without comment.
When Critchlow asks what the class thought of Doely’s presentation, she is dismayed with the answer given by her first class of the day.
“It’s good to stay abstinent, but none of you are going to, so this is what you should do,” is how one student characterizes the presentation. Most of the class agrees.
Critchlow does damage control, explaining what they were supposed to have learned. After class, she theorizes that either she and Doely didn’t emphasize abstinence enough before the presentation, or that her class simply jumped on the bandwagon after the first student’s answer.
She is relieved when Critchlow’s second class describes Doely’s presentation as emphasizing abstinence and providing them information on birth control and STD prevention to be used if they decide to have sex anyway, or preferably later in life.
At one point, students in her first class begin critiquing SPAM’s individual skits. They discuss one particular skit, aimed at showing them ways of saying no to sex, in which a male SPAM volunteer prods a female to come to his bedroom and “check out his new sheets.” First she says “no,” he repeats the line verbatim and gets a (fake) slap on the cheek, and then, on his third attempt with the same line, she pretends to call her father and ask if it’s okay.
Critchlow’s students say the role-playing failed to present them with real options. One notes that really slapping someone could worsen a tense situation. Another student suggests, “Maybe if you told the person [who wants to have sex] that you have morals and goals, maybe they would respect that better.”
Critchlow thinks about this and asks the students how many of them are really ready to sit down and have a serious discussion about goals, morals, STDs and pregnancy with a boyfriend/girlfriend. Her class gets quiet.
“So are you ready to have sex?” Critchlow asks. Again, silence.
“Unless you’re ready to talk about those things, you’re probably not ready to engage in sex,” she posits. Most of her students nod in agreement.