On 23 October 2017, conservative news site The Blaze published a story reporting that parents of public school students in the small town of Jay, Oklahoma, were "infuriated" because the school district "took a sex education class way too far":
Parent Mandy Callihan posted on Facebook that her 12-year-old daughter came to her in tears earlier this month after she was too embarrassed to complete her sex education assignment. Callihan said she understood why as soon as she read the worksheet.
The rest of the story was almost entirely lifted from a 14 October 2017 Facebook post written by Callihan, which was labelled "X rated warning." In the post, Callihan said her 12-year-old daughter attended a sex education class at Jay Middle School that left her feeling distraught. Callihan included in the post a photograph of part of a page of homework asking children to answer questions such as "What is sex?" and instructing them to identify four types of sex (the answers, which were scrawled in with pencil, were oral, vaginal, and anal, along with "mutual masturbation").
In her post, Callihan said she and her husband were "livid" to learn that their daughter was in the class with male students, where they heard graphic descriptions of sexually-transmitted diseases. She said the girl was embarrassed by it all and did not want to go back. (Although the school claims they sent home pamphlets about the class to parents, Callihan asserted she and her husband did not receive it.)
Mandy Callihan's post went viral and was picked up by various disreputable web sites, which added salacious headlines — including repeat offender MadWorldNews, who went into full clickbait mode with "Mom Finds 12-Year-Old Girl Crying, Horrified When She Sees What Liberal Educator Gave Her." The story was then picked up by mainstream local news outlets. Callihan has since either deleted or locked down her original Facebook post.
We reached out to the Jay Middle School principal and district Superintendent Kenneth Bridges and got no response, but Bridges told Oklahoma City TV station KWTV the program had been discontinued as of 13 October 2017.
While it was the focus of an uproar, the school sex education program was hardly new or radical. We contacted Karen Moore, who is director of Lighthouse Pregnancy Center, the faith-based crisis pregnancy clinic that developed the course known as SHAPE (Sexual Health, Awareness and Prevention Education). Moore said the incident has been blown out of proportion: the image shared by Callihan does not depict an endorsement of the sex acts, she said; it simply informs children that they exist:
We’re giving them tools and empowering them with education, and they realize we’re just telling them facts. Knowledge is power. They can say "No, I'm not going down that road because I have more facts in my brain than if someone just said 'don’t do this.'"
Moore told us the program promotes abstinence to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases. Often, critics of abstinence-based sex education programs maintain that that approach does not provide enough content that might give students a comprehensive view of human sexuality and health. Critics also posit that abstinence-centric programs are religiously-oriented, shame-based, and favor heterosexuality. Rarely, however, do they complain the programs are too explicit.
The SHAPE program was launched in 2013, and Moore said that up until 2017, there had been no controversies. Five other Oklahoma school districts have implemented the program, and this was the second year it was in place at Jay. Moore told us SHAPE is privately funded and provided to schools free of charge:
It’s not something new. [In the program] we use common anatomy, CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] facts, nationwide statistics on pregnancy and STDs. We try to give these kids a perspective. Yes they’re worried about getting pregnant, but 19.7 million new people get an STD every year. We tell them we don’t want them to be a statistic.
Moore added that amid the social media hysteria and sensational headlines, no one reached out to her to get her side of the story.
Sex education has been a fraught topic in Oklahoma, and the state has consistently ranked among the highest in teen birth rates in recent years. It also ranks high in some sexually-transmitted diseases: fifth in the nation in gonorrheal infections and tenth in chlamydial infections, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oklahoma is not among the 24 states that require sex education to be taught in schools. In 2016 the state legislature passed a law establishing a fund entitled “Public Education on the Humanity of the Unborn Child Fund," requiring state health officials and public schools to provide “educational materials” to Oklahomans that “clearly and consistently teach that abortion kills a living human being.” That same year, the Muscogee Creek Nation announced they were implementing their own sex education program, citing a dearth of courses provided by local public schools.
The fact that Jay school officials have been dragged into an outrage bubble for timidly attempting to launch a sex education program — and a conservative one at that — doesn't bode well for other educators trying to do the same, said Wendy Sellers, a nurse, Michigan educator, and author:
Every school I’ve worked with offers parents the right to opt their child out [of sex education]. We should support parents who want to opt out, but we should not allow those parents to completely undermine the curriculum. This kind of Facebook thing is what schools and teachers are so afraid of. In my experience when this sort of outrage, gossip and lack of good information starts circulating, school districts will shut right down out of fear of parental backlash. Individual teachers often under-teach kids because they’re afraid this will happen to them.
I hear schools say they’re concerned this will hit the parent Facebook page and they’ll be individually called to the carpet or have their reputation maligned because of the ability of social media to spread this kind of thing.
Rachel Cooke, associate director of communications for the nonprofit organization Advocates for Youth, stressed the importance of sex education in providing young people with accurate information. In the United States, 62 percent of teens report having had sex by the time they are high school seniors, while 46 percent of high school-aged students overall report the same. Young people who have access to accurate information generally choose to delay doing so, however, Cooke told us:
Teaching kids age-appropriate sex ed, even if it's uncomfortable to talk about at first, will help students break through misinformation they may hear in the hallways — or encounter online. Like it or not, kids are hearing about sex much earlier in their lives than ever before, which is why it’s critical to give them accurate information before they are exposed to bad facts.
Just because young people are learning about sexuality doesn’t mean they’re choosing to have sex — but it does open the door for important conversations between parents and their kids. And parents play a huge role in sex education, including helping a young person establish individual values to make healthy decisions. When whole families have the facts, it's easier to talk honestly about safety, consent, and contraception, long before young people need it. In fact, teens who receive comprehensive sex education generally choose to have sex later in life and have lower rates of unplanned pregnancy and STIs.