Ray Carter | August 28, 2020
Oklahoma government funds controversial sex-ed curriculum
Many “age-appropriate” and “abstinence-based” sexual education courses in public schools are far more graphic than parents realize, and often stretch the meaning of the word “abstinence” to include a wide range of sexual activity, according to experts.
One sex-ed program criticized by officials is allowed in Oklahoma schools and funded by a state agency.
“The best-kept secret in every state is what’s actually being taught to the children,” said Sharen Slater, president of Family Watch International. “Because they know if parents find out, they’re going to go crazy and they’re going to try to stop it.”
Slater was among several officials who spoke at the 2020 Protecting Children in Education Summit, a recent virtual event hosted by The Heritage Foundation. The forum focused on how citizens can oppose “the sexualization of children through laws and policies that impose medically unsound comprehensive sexuality education and sexual orientation and gender identity curriculum on schools.”
Slater pointed to the “Making a Difference!” curriculum as one that many parents would find troubling. She said one activity sheet for the program asks students to define abstinence and states that students’ possible answers may include “all sorts of sexual acts, promoting them as abstinence.”
“The best-kept secret in every state is what’s actually being taught to the children.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health lists the “Making a Difference!” program as one the agency offers “to schools and youth-serving organizations in Oklahoma, Tulsa, and 24 other counties with high teen birth rates through the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Maternal and Child Health Service (MCH).”
Family Watch International and several other organizations have jointly critiqued the “Making a Difference!” program online, saying that “hundreds of times throughout this curriculum, abstinence is defined, not as abstaining from sex but rather only as abstaining from ‘unprotected sex.’”
The critique states that “Making a Difference!” includes no “warnings about the harmful effects of early sexual debut.”
A proposed brainstorming session for students, listed on page 63, asks youth to discuss “some of the ways people express their sexual feelings to themselves or other people” and suggests students’ answers could include oral sex, grinding, anal sex, touching each other’s genitals, vaginal intercourse, and “saying ‘I like you.’”
“Making a Difference!” is intended for children ages 11 to 13.
A proposed case study to instruct children on how to “practice negotiation and refusal skills” and engage only in consensual sexual activity involves a 13-year old child. Family Watch International’s critique of the program states, “While this may be appropriate for adults, children of minor age should never be encouraged to ‘consent’ to sex.”
Page 38 of “Making a Difference!” indicates students may be discouraged from discussing class content with a parent or guardian, stating, “Confidentiality rules: Do not talk about what we hear in the class outside the group.”
Slater said many states adopt a “framework” for sexual education in public schools that provides only broad outlines of what will be taught, “but it’s not the actual curriculum.”
“In the outline, everything sounds beautiful, nice, and non-controversial, but you don’t know what the curriculum is that’s attached to it,” Slater said.
“I was a prosecutor in the Marine Corps. I handled my fair share of sexual assault cases. There are things that Planned Parenthood wants to teach our 12-year-olds that I hadn’t even heard of.”
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said Massachusetts law requires “medically accurate” and “age-appropriate” sex-ed materials in public schools. However, the law allows state agencies to determine how those terms are defined.
When Beckwith and officials at the institute reviewed the programs that had been approved for Massachusetts students, they found it included “Get Real,” a publication of a Planned Parenthood affiliate that was intended for seventh-grade students.
“In the seventh-grade curricula, for children who are potentially as young as 12 years old, this curriculum recommends or teaches kids how to use Saran Wrap—Saran Wrap; specifically non-microwavable Saran Wrap—as an oral prophylactic for non-reproductive acts,” Beckwith said.
He said many parents would not find that “age-appropriate.”
“That is clearly not appropriate for the age of 12,” Beckwith said. “Before I did this job, I was a prosecutor in the Marine Corps. I handled my fair share of sexual assault cases, and there are things that Planned Parenthood wants to teach our 12-year-olds that I hadn’t even heard of before I started going through their curricula. And I don’t know if Saran Wrap as a prophylactic is ‘medically accurate.’”
Some Oklahoma lawmakers have previously expressed concern that state agencies have very wide latitude when developing curriculum in a related area—HIV/AIDS education.
In 2019, Oklahoma lawmakers approved House Bill 1018, which would have revised state law regarding HIV/AIDS education in public schools. Although the bill passed the Oklahoma Legislature, it was vetoed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who said existing law already required those materials to reflect the latest scientific information.
Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell, was among those who opposed the bill. In House floor debate, Russ noted that the AIDS curriculum would be provided by the Oklahoma State Department of Education and local school districts would have the option to create their own curriculum.
He said it was concerning to not know “their interpretation of those guidelines” or “how they’re going to present that curriculum to my child in a specific classroom.” Russ said there was “some very adult language and adult words and descriptions in some of the information when you go into the statute and the curriculum that’s not in this bill.”
“In my opinion, those topics are not appropriate for fifth and sixth graders, and not knowing whether they’re going to come up with age-appropriate information is a very big question in my mind and many other people that have contacted me about that,” Russ said.
In its material promoting the “Making a Difference!” program, the Oklahoma State Department of Health says it complies with Oklahoma’s HIV/AIDS education statute and complies with Oklahoma’s Sex Education Curriculum and Materials statute, which requires all sex education curriculum “to include information about sexual consent and meet the state’s definition for consent.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health also says research shows youth who participate in the “Making a Difference!” program reported delayed initiation of sexual activity, and that the behavior change “lasted at least 3 months after implementation of the program.”
However, Irene Erickson, senior research analyst at the Institute for Research and Evaluation, said few school-based sex-education programs produce meaningful benefit, and some even lead to an increase in risky behaviors.
The institute reviewed 120 studies of school-based comprehensive sexual education (CSE) programs worldwide, conducted over 30 years, that were deemed credible by the United Nations, the federal Centers for Disease Control, or the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Of that total, 60 studies were focused on sex-education programs in U.S. schools.
“We found that only three out of 60 CSE studies found evidence of effectiveness, defined as improvement in teen abstinence, condom use, pregnancy or STDs for the target population—not just a subgroup—lasting at least 12 months after the program and without other negative or harmful program effects,” Erickson said. “On the other hand, seven out of these same 60 CSE studies found evidence of harmful CSE impact—increased sexual-risk behavior, pregnancy, or STDs. Note there was more evidence of harm by CSE—seven studies—than evidence of effectiveness—three studies.”
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.