GLENBURN – What educators saw as an update to a family life curriculum that’s been taught here for more than 20 years, some parents viewed as a drastic change in the way sex education is talked about in the eighth grade.
Last month, about 40 parents attended what school officials conceded was a tense meeting about the introduction of a program called “Reducing the Risk.” A follow-up meeting at the school Wednesday night brought out about 15 parents, many of whom expressed support for the new approach.
Rachel Gallant, the school nurse at the Glenburn School since 1998, teaches the class. The program was put on hold in mid-November due to parental concerns, but will resume after the first of the year, she said. So far, only two out of 62 pupils have opted out of the program, according to Gallant.
“This is a new approach, but it’s not new information,” Gallant said before Wednesday’s meeting. “The students are taught about refusal skills, abstinence and delaying tactics. They do a lot of role-playing in which they practice those skills in scenarios similar to ones they may actually find themselves in at a future time or have already experienced. We also ask them to dialogue with their parents to open up communication.”
Dr. Carolyn Leick, who is in her first year as principal at the Glenburn School, admitted Wednesday night that she and Gallant made a mistake in not telling parents more about the program before it was implemented. She said the Department of Education does recommend that schools hold informational meetings with parents because turnout in other districts had been low. The principal said such meetings would be held in Glenburn in the future.
Eighth-grader Jade Botting attended the meeting with her parents. She and pupils Amber Bell and Trisha Burke surveyed 34 pupils in the class. According to Botting, 29 pupils responded that the “Reducing the Risk” program was “useful,” one said it was “not useful” and four were undecided.
“A lot of kids need to know about this not just for the future, but for now,” she said after Wednesday’s meeting. “I had some ideas that turned out not to be quite accurate. I’ve gotten a lot more accurate information about protection in this class.”
Jade’s mother, Melissa Botting, expressed enthusiastic support for the program.
“When I was growing up, there was no sex education in school,” she said. “I would have loved to learn how to say no and different ways to say no. This is a wonderful program. They start with the D.A.R.E. program early on these days and that is very important, but sex is an issue that’s also very important to this generation.”
While Gallant pointed out that “Reducing the Risk” taught some of the same refusal tactics taught in D.A.R.E. programs, Burke said that students believed the lessons they learned in the D.A.R.E. program applied specifically to drugs, but not to sex.
“I think the program should start in the sixth grade instead of the eighth,” Burke said. “As you get into the upper grades, the peer pressure increases. There’s more peer pressure to have sex than to do drugs.”
That is the main reason the Department of Education has been urging districts over the past five years to implement the program in the seventh and eighth grades, said Joan Foster, who works in the Health Department of the State Board of Education. The program is used by 85 schools around the state, she said, but most often in eighth- and ninth-grade health classes.
The “Reducing the Risk” program was developed a decade ago with support from organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the Christian Coalition, according to Foster.
In Bucksport, the “Reducing the Risk” program has been used in the eighth grade for five years, according to Elaine Emery, curriculum coordinator for the district. “The eighth grade is the ideal time for causing students to delay the onset of sexual activity. Statewide statistics indicate that waiting until the ninth grade is too late. We have to reach kids before a majority of them have become sexually active.”
Emery estimated that between 90 and 100 students participate in the program each year. Bucksport does hold an annual information meeting for parents. Feedback from parents has been 90 percent positive once they understand how and why the class is structured and taught the way it is, she said.
Iola Cook, a sixth-grade teacher at Hope Elementary, has helped teach the program to eighth-graders there for three years.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how seriously the students take it,” she said earlier this week. “It gives them a broad-based knowledge of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases]. It also gives them permission to abstain. A lot of times, they think they are the only ones who aren’t having sex. We emphasize if they are ever involved in a situation where someone is making sexual advances that aren’t wanted, they have a right to say no. This program has made a huge impact on the students who’ve been part of it.”
Since the program started, according to Cook, two girls have come forward to say they were being sexually abused. In both cases, she said, the perpetrators were adult males, not fellow students. The perpetrators were prosecuted and sentenced to jail, said Cook.