A 17-year-old jolted the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District last month when she told the school board that a nearby faith-based crisis pregnancy center had been invited to her health class, saying that it offered medically inaccurate information, exaggerated the dangers of sex, and offered a Bible to a girl who stayed after class.
The allegations by Strath Haven High School senior Abby McElroy against the Drexel Hill-based Amnion Pregnancy Center shot through the 3,500-student Delaware County district, causing more than 500 people to sign a Change.org petition against the center's future participation and Superintendent Lisa Palmer to issue a public statement that "we will thoroughly investigate."
School board members "were horrified – none of them had any idea that this was going on," said McElroy, who showed up at their July meeting with a poster board copied from Amnion's presentation, titled "The Steep Slope of Arousal."
The poster showed two stick figures holding hands at the edge of cliff – part of Amnion's RealEd "relationship education" program that contends that even hand-holding, hugging, and kissing can cause teens to fall into the abyss and crash on the rocks of sexual activity.
McElroy told the school board the presentation had encouraged abstinence not just from sex but any touching in order to conserve oxytocin, a hormone that is released during sex and activities like cuddling. The claim that too much youthful activity depletes oxytocin and thus makes it harder for a person to eventually bond with a future spouse has been challenged by scientists, who say it's based on research with prairie voles, not humans.
Amnion executive director Melanie Parks said the RealEd program is not faith-based. She said that it encourages young people to think critically about sex and relationship choices, that the discussion of oxytocin was taken out of context by the student, and that the information in the program "was presented accurately." She denied that a student was given a Bible.
The controversy over the role of Amnion – which quotes the Bible on its website, accepts grant money from the socially conservative Christian Focus on the Family and has a stated goal of ending abortion in the Philadelphia suburbs – highlights the ongoing ambiguity over how sex education is taught in Pennsylvania public schools.
The state has no standards for teaching comprehensive sex education, and efforts to establish them in the legislature in recent years have failed. However, students are required to learn about preventing sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, and abstinence is encouraged. Some faith-based, antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers have received state funding.
Andrea Swartzendruber, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia who studies faith-based pregnancy centers, said she has found that they have been involved in school-based sex-ed programs for decades and often present medically incorrect information.
"The parents I've talked to have been surprised and unhappy when they realize this religious organization is teaching and their main mission is antiabortion," she said.
Advocates for Youth, which promotes adolescent reproductive and sexual health, also reported in a survey of abstinence-only sex-ed programs that many contain inaccurate or misleading information.
Wallingford-Swarthmore school board president Marilyn Huff said the district was investigating and promised that "we will make changes" – although she declined to offer specifics.
Amnion was invited to the school by a health teacher, according to parents and students. McElroy said that after sitting through the one-day program during her sophomore year, she'd complained to the Strath Haven principal and had been reassured Amnion would not be invited back. But it was. That principal has since left the district.
Amnion has worked at Strath Haven for three years and goes to 25 public and private middle and high schools in the Philadelphia suburbs annually, said Parks, adding that it doesn't receive state or federal funding and that all of its programs are free.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, the experience has taught McElroy a lesson about not abstaining when it comes to speaking out on a thorny issue, she said.
She said that after Amnion representatives returned last year, she initially said nothing but changed her mind after researching faith-based crisis pregnancy centers while studying this summer at the prestigious Pennsylvania Governor's School for Global and International Studies.
"I live in a very liberal, very open community — for the parents and also the students this is something that they are very passionate about," she said of her presentation.
She said she supports anyone who believes in abstinence but worried that Amnion's presentation may have shamed students who were sexually active.
Stefanie McArdle Taylor, an attorney whose two children attend Wallingford-Swarthmore schools, organized the Change.org petition and posted about the program on a local message board called Next Door Swarthmore. She said she was shocked to learn that the superintendent and school board didn't know about the visits and that "there must have been a slip-up or a mistake."
What she heard about the program was "outrageous," she said.
While McElroy said there was no mention of religion during the class, she noted that there are psalms and Biblical quotes on the crisis center's website. She also reported that when she took the class a student who stayed after to ask questions was given a Bible.
Another element of the center's presentation, according to students who attended, was a piece of sticky tape; the teens were told that "if you have sex with too many people it becomes less sticky — and you can't make healthy relationships," McElroy said.
"I think for the most part we found it funny, but I'm not saying they didn't make any good points, because they did," said Alexia Alvarez, 16, who took the class last year.
Meanwhile, McElroy says that her activism around the issue isn't done and that she wants to visit other school districts that work with crisis pregnancy centers. "The model of speaking at school board meetings worked out so well," she said, "I would like to expand this to other districts."