The Wallingford-Swarthmore School District agreed with a Strath Haven High School senior who complained that her health class sex-ed lecture from a faith-based pregnancy center was not factually accurate, and said it would no longer invite the organization to speak at the high school.
In an email to parents, Superintendent Lisa Palmer said after reviewing the materials the Drexel Hill-based Amnion Pregnancy Center presented that she found some of the information shared in class and in conversations with students after class about romantic relationships "was not purely factual."
Abby McElroy, the 17 year-old who told school officials about the class, said she's already working to bring her protest to other Philadelphia-area schools.
"I want to pursue this because I think every student has the right to fact-based, comprehensive sex education," McElroy said in an email.
"Amnion's presentations seek to shame students into believing that they only have one option (abstinence) because if they don't abstain from sex, they will become unlovable," McElroy said. "This is incredibly degrading and dehumanizing, and no one should be subjected to it."
Amnion's executive director defended the program. "The RealEd program is secular, factual, and provides the relationship education component of the overall sexual education curriculum and has consistently received positive feedback through student and teacher surveys," executive director Melanie Parks said in an email. "We hope that Wallingford-Swarthmore continues to offer relationship education programming for their students."
McElroy jolted the 3,500-student Delaware County district when she showed up at a July school board meeting to complain that Amnion representatives had been invited into health classes where, she alleged, they offered medically inaccurate information, exaggerated the dangers of sex, and offered a Bible to a girl who stayed after class.
After about 700 parents and students in the predominantly liberal suburban district signed a Change.org petition urging a future ban on Amnion, Palmer and the school board members promised an investigation.
In her email sent last Thursday, the superintendent said that while much of Amnion's presentation was acceptable, "a portion about romantic relationships was not purely factual."
Noting that and other students' complaints about Amnion's after-class conversation, including the alleged Bible incident, Palmer said: "Moving forward, core sexual education topics will be covered by our own Wallingford-Swarthmore teachers, not outside presenters. This will allow us to more closely control the information presented, again with our goal of presenting factual, balanced information that empowers our students to make healthy choices."
The controversy at Strath Haven High School spotlighted the lack of comprehensive standards for how sex education should be taught in Pennsylvania classrooms. Legislative efforts in Harrisburg to mandate a broad curriculum, beyond a few guidelines for teaching abstinence and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, have failed.
Some faith-based crisis pregnancy centers – which oppose abortion and push a strict, abstinence-only line about teen sex – receive state funding, although Amnion is not one of them. While Amnion says its RealEd relationship program is secular, the group features biblical quotes on its website and has received funding from faith-based groups like Focus on the Family.
Nationally, studies have shown a major shift from sex-education classes focused on birth control – dominant in the 1990s – to abstinence-centered classes offered by more than three-quarters of high schools by the mid-2010s, despite a lack of scientific evidence that abstinence-only sex ed is more effective.
In announcing that Amnion will not be returning to Strath Haven in 2018-19, Palmer noted that other outside groups such as Planned Parenthood, the Gay Straight Alliance, Women Against Rape, and police representatives from Philadelphia and Ridley Park have made in-school presentations in the past. From now on, guest speakers will need to be approved by the principal and meet a long list of guidelines. Moreover, any presentation can be ended by a staff member if it is deemed inappropriate.
McElroy said she's been researching which other Philadelphia-area schools receive presentations from Amnion – using information from the group's own website and filing Right-to-Know requests with other districts. Her goal, she said, is to form alliances with other students and present findings about Amnion to board members in the same manner she addressed the Wallingford-Swarthmore board.
In addition to the alleged Bible incident – which Amnion has disputed – McElroy had complained to board members that the crisis pregnancy center had presented disputed evidence about the role of oxytocin — a hormone released during sex and other activities such as cuddling — and brought a poster called "The Steep Slope of Arousal" that depicted stick-figure teens plunging into an abyss of risky sex after hugging and kissing.
She said that most districts have delayed answering or flat-out rejected her requests but that subsequent phone calls uncovered one district, Upper Merion in Montgomery County, which has been inviting Amnion presenters for about a decade.
Dr. John Toleno, the Upper Merion superintendent, said in an interview that there's never been an issue or any complaints about Amnion – "It's never become about religion and no one handed a Bible out," he said – but he promised to take another look into the program in the wake of the uproar in Wallingford-Swarthmore.
In Wallingford-Swarthmore, Stefanie McArdle-Taylor, the parent who started the Change.org petition, called it "pretty amazing" that so few parents or top district officials knew about the Amnion program before McElroy's presentation and said she didn't mind other groups being invited to speak, but draws the line at religious organizations. "The messages they were giving to kids," she added, "were kind of damaging and out of date."