Families in Oregon scored a victory when the controversial Teen Sexuality Conference in Seaside, Ore., was canceled. The conference, which has been held for more than 20 years, faced a firestorm of public outcry after local news station KOIN 6 released a series of investigative pieces on the sexually explicit material being supplied to students as young as 11.
Activists say this is only the beginning of a growing awareness of systemic problems in the way healthcare and sex education are handled in Oregon’s school system.
“We understand that this is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as the kind of K-12 education that is being promoted in schools across the district and across the state,” Lori Porter, director of Parents’ Rights in Education, told me.
Porter, a school teacher for more than 25 years, attended one of the conferences in 2011 when she was on the sex education review committee for her district.
“It was at that point that I started to connect the dots and have real concerns about the material that was being presented to minors under the guise of health and safety,” she said.
The annual conference, funded by Oregon taxpayers, purported to give both students and teachers information they needed to encourage safe sex, promote healthy relationships, and prevent teen pregnancy. But the initial investigation by KOIN 6 in November suggested the material provided would result in just the opposite. In at times graphic detail, instructors and pamphlets encouraged everything from sexting to using a virtual pornography website. Local law enforcement officials also expressed concern the conference encouraged minors to engage in illegal activity, such as drug use and child pornography.
In February, the Oregon Department of Education told KOIN 6 the pamphlets were “not appropriate for school-age students,” but defended the conference overall. On March 3, the Oregon Health Authority responded to requests for interviews by saying their staff who attended the conference found it “to align with our goals.”
Mary Starrett, a county commissioner in Yamhill, Ore., who serves as the liaison between the board and the Oregon Department of Health and Human services, agreed with Porter that the conference debacle is a symptom of bigger problems.
“I think this is just another example of the efforts that are being made in the war for the hearts and the minds of our kids,” she told me. “That’s why parents whose children are still in the public school system have to be hyper vigilant.”
Porter said the problems aren’t limited to sex education. Other areas of concern include the reproductive services offered to all ages at school health centers, and harmful mental health advice that cuts parents out of the discussion. As lines blur between education and healthcare, she said, students have more and more access to questionable information under HIPPA, without their parents’ knowledge.
And the problematic material at the conference was not limited to the event. Pamphlets from the conference have been disseminated to 70 school-based health centers throughout the state. Porter said the conference gave “marching orders” to teachers and peer tutors, who were encouraged to promote the material in their schools.
“We’re going to continue monitoring the key players as far as this conference goes, but we’re also going to keep looking at the school health centers and what kind of messages kids are getting, and what parents need to know,” she said.
In a press release, Parents’ Rights in Education accused the Oregon state agencies of “intentionally misleading parents, educators, and school boards by hiding behind terminology such as ‘healthy relationships,’ ‘holistic sexuality,’ and ‘safe and honest conversations.’” Informing parents about what these words actually mean is part of the organization’s goal. It also plans to encourage local school districts to pay attention to what the Oregon Education Department hands down to them. The conference furor has caused school board members to question the judgment of those higher up in state authority and begin pushing back.
“We’re pleased that the local community, school boards, law enforcement, legislators, the media, and individual people, once they were informed about this, really took it seriously and demanded immediate action as to what was being presented by these state agencies to minor children across the state,” Porter said.
— by Rachel Lynn Aldrich