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Mislabeled sex ed

In Hawaii, sex education programs go by different names—abstinence, comprehensive—depending on who’s doling out the money

Mislabeled sex ed

High school students (BYU–Hawaii, Flickr)

Forgive Hawaii parents for being confused about what sex education their children are getting in public school. Sex ed programs in the tropical state use different descriptors based on money and political power—a practice that sometimes occurs elsewhere in the country as well. And Hawaii parents don’t typically have access to sex ed curriculum beyond a description posted on school websites.

The Hawaii Department of Education says that it offers “comprehensive, abstinence-based sexual health education.” That wording lumps together the two different camps in the debate over sex ed: “Abstinence-based” sex ed (or the newer term, “sexual risk avoidance”) emphasizes abstinence and the risks of sex, while “comprehensive” sex ed (CSE) emphasizes contraceptives and tends to be more liberal on subjects like gender identity. (See “Oversexed ed,” Sept. 16, 2017.)

Unlike other states, where sex ed varies district by district, Hawaii has one school board over the entire state. That makes it simpler to analyze the state’s sex ed curriculum. Hawaii has seven approved sex ed programs and requires them to be “abstinence-based," where classes are abstinence-focused but teach about contraceptives. But under the Barack Obama administration the state received millions of dollars in PREP grants, which went only to CSE state programs.

“There’s no way to tell if your kid is getting CSE or abstinence-based or sexual risk avoidance, because they interchange the terms,” said Susan Duffy, a researcher for Ohana Policy Group, a Hawaii organization that supports abstinence-based sex ed programs.

A national curriculum called Making a Difference! is one of Hawaii’s approved sex ed programs for middle school. While the curriculum bills itself as abstinence-based, it has won both abstinence grants and CSE grants. Abstinence advocates like Duffy consider Making a Difference! more on the CSE end of the spectrum.

“They deliberately label it an abstinence approach, so principals and teachers and superintendents go, ‘Oh, that’s really good,’” said Mary McLellan, a sexual risk avoidance specialist who is part of a loose national coalition of abstinence education researchers and advocates.

Making a Difference! is one of the most commonly used curricula nationwide, according to McLellan. The authors of the curriculum have written follow-up lessons for later ages in middle school and high school (like Making Proud Choices!) that are more encouraging of casual sex, according to McLellan. She said the supposedly abstinence-focused curriculum never discusses marriage or monogamous relationships.

Making Proud Choices! and Making a Difference! can be whatever their advocates want them to be in order to secure federal funding,” said Duffy.

Abstinence-based sex education, to qualify for federal grants, must meet a set of criteria, including teaching “abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children.” Duffy and McLellan guess that the government perhaps relaxed the requirements for grants so that certain ambiguous programs calling themselves abstinence-based could receive funding.

The fight over curriculum has been hot in Hawaii recently. Until 2016, Hawaii public schools could individually decide whether to teach sex ed. But then the state board of education passed a policy mandating sex ed. Abstinence advocates say the state is mandating CSE without using the term CSE, being “intentionally vague.”

In 2015 Planned Parenthood had pushed a bill at the Hawaii Legislature that used the same language the state board of education later adopted in its new policy. That bill, which died, was titled “Comprehensive Sex Education.”

The new policy doesn’t use the word “comprehensive.” Schools are supposed to post a description of their curriculum on their websites for parents before classes start. Initially under the new education policy the state required parents to opt in to the sex ed classes—an approach abstinence advocates supported—but then changed it to an opt-out policy instead.

After the board of education’s policy changed, the director of education and training for Planned Parenthood’s Hawaii chapter said she was “elated.” The Planned Parenthood chapter had already been training public school teachers to lead the Making Proud Choices! curriculum and said in a newsletter in 2013 that the organization had to turn down requests for sex ed training from some schools because it didn’t have enough staff to lead the trainings.

Hawaii can mandate CSE or a Planned Parenthood-associated curriculum, but it doesn’t have a way of monitoring whether schools are actually teaching it.

Like other states and districts, Hawaii can mandate CSE or a Planned Parenthood–associated curriculum, but it doesn’t have a way of monitoring whether schools are actually teaching it. New York City, which also mandates CSE, has no reporting mechanism and therefore no idea how many students are receiving sex ed.

Some Christian abstinence advocates in Hawaii are working on offering parents a “Biblically based” alternative curriculum to use if they decide to opt their children out of sex ed classes. The middle school curriculum, called Wonderfully Made, would meet state requirements, according to Rojo Herrera, who is working on the project through his organization, PEACE Hawaii. The goal is to have the curriculum win certification and then state approval for curriculum options alongside the seven options the state already offers.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.