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Sex ed led by teens is dividing parents

Foes say they feel deceived. Supporters in point to supervision and an N.J. law.

A tussle that began with a condom and a banana has morphed into all-out war at a New Jersey high school, with some parents trying to end a peer-to-peer sexual-education course taught in about 45 other public schools statewide.

Parents opposed to the classes at Clearview Regional High School, in Mullica Hill, say that kids shouldn't be instructing kids about sex and that the elective course doesn't go far enough in stressing abstinence.

Some have accused the school of being deceptive about what is taught in the New Jersey Teen Prevention Education Program, known as Teen PEP. And they contend that public money has been misspent on the curriculum, developed with help from state health officials and taught since 1994.

School district administrators say misinformation has fueled the firestorm, which began last month and is expected to continue at a Feb. 28 school board meeting. They say New Jersey law requires them to teach a comprehensive class that addresses abstinence, safe sex, dating violence, HIV-AIDS, and how alcohol and drugs affect sexual decision-making - a fact confirmed by the state health department.

Six students have withdrawn from the coeducational program, in which faculty-supervised juniors and seniors conduct a series of five seminars attended by a total of 125 freshmen.

"This is a few parents making a lot of noise," said Diane Cummins, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Clearview Regional School District, where Teen PEP began without controversy last year.

What's happening in this Gloucester County town of new homes and farm fields 25 miles south of Camden is part of a nationwide increase in conflicts over sex-ed courses, experts say.

Last year, parents sparred publicly over such classes in 244 cases, up from 204 in 2006, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonpartisan, nonprofit sexual-education agency. In 1998, there were 140 cases.

Clashes leveled off as communities accepted sex-ed programs limited to teaching abstinence until marriage and about the failure rates of contraception - an approach required since 1998 of schools that accept Title V federal funding.

In recent years, however, advocates for comprehensive sexual education have fought the narrowly tailored courses, on which the Bush administration intends to spend $141 million this year.

States have increasingly refused Title V money - Arizona last month became the 16th to do so - and are using alternate funding to develop and teach their own curriculums.

New Jersey has never accepted Title V money, and had avoided becoming much of a battleground until recently. Pennsylvania has alternately turned down and taken federal funding; educators in the state are seeking clarification concerning possible changes to their sex-ed courses.

At Clearview, those who oppose Teen PEP are not from a single camp. Some parents object to it on religious or moral grounds; others consider themselves more moderate. The complaint they share is that they were not adequately informed that their children would be taught by students.

"Do you want a 16-year-old boy teaching your 14-year-old daughter how to put on a condom by using a banana?" asked Lisa Westermann, whose son said the course had made him uncomfortable.

Westermann said she had not given permission for her 14-year-old boy to attend Teen PEP. And her son, who she asked not be named, did not realize the nature of the seminar until the banana episode. He was reluctant to leave for fear he would be ridiculed, she said.

Clearview has acknowledged that three freshmen, who didn't have permission slips, were incorrectly included.

"It's unfortunate it happened, and we've all learned something from it," said Cummins, who said new procedures had been put in place to prevent a similar mistake.

At Westermann's request, Clearview gave her the 900-page Teen PEP instructors' manual. But the school told her that it taught only certain segments of the curriculum, Westermann said.

Families considering whether to let their children attend don't know what's in and what's out, she said last week.

"How can a parent educate her child, or make a counterpoint to a lesson, without knowing what he's learned?" she asked.

Westermann said she would like to see a revised course that emphasized abstinence and avoided discussion of contraception, which she thinks promotes sexual activity. If birth control must be taught, she said, she wants it done by adults who will focus on failure rates.

Cummins agreed that parents needed to choose for their children, but not for others.

"We respect a parent's right to make a decision for their own children, but when they pressure other parents about what's right for their children, that's unfair," Cummins said.

A leadership organization in Princeton designed Teen PEP with funding and approval by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

The class works like this: Juniors and seniors apply to become instructors, and 26 are selected. They take an intensive sexual-health class and develop skits and interactive lessons they present to freshmen five times a year. Faculty advisers are always present.

The junior and senior volunteers do not see much controversy. "Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and, I think, the best decision I can make as a teen," said Brighid Burgin, 17, a peer educator.

"But it's not a perfect world," and kids do have sex, she said.

Without a course like Teen PEP, Burgin said, "we're concerned we won't get the information out there so kids can grow into good decision-makers."

Peer sex-ed counseling, popular in colleges, has found its way into high schools only recently. Cummins, who selected the curriculum after consulting with health officials, said she believes it works. So do the peer educators.

"Students listen to each other anyway," said Alex Van Kooy, 16, a Clearview peer educator. They talk about sex "in the halls and at the bus stop, and we're just trying to give the correct information instead of rumors and whispers."

Douglas Kirby, a scientist at ETR Associates of California, a nonprofit health-research organization, has studied the effectiveness of sexual-education programs for 30 years. Some of the programs he designs include peer teachers, but those taught by adults are equally effective, he said.

Though today's teenagers are more sophisticated than previous generations, Kirby said, learning about sex in a coed setting is always embarrassing.

"I'm 64, and when we learned about rats having sex in biology we got embarrassed," Kirby said. "But it didn't hurt us any."

Parents Joe and Natalie Fortunato were clear about what they would like to happen to Teen PEP.

"We want it gone," said Natalie Fortunato, who would prefer the school teach abstinence until marriage.

The couple, who have a daughter who is a junior at Clearview and a son who will attend next school year, have started a Web petition to end the course. They say references to Planned Parenthood, a group that has made abortions available to teenagers, show it is biased.

The Fortunatos also object to a segment promoting tolerance toward people of all sexual orientations.

Research has found that teaching teenagers safe-sex practices does not make them likely to have sex younger. And studies, including one in 2007 conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, have indicated that abstinence-only courses have little effect on teenagers' sexual behavior.

"Many comprehensive sexual-education programs are effective at getting kids to delay the initiation of sex, and no studies show that it encourages them to engage in sex," said John Santelli, professor of clinical population and family health at the Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

"I understand a parent's concern, but there is no evidence that this happens," Santelli said.

In Mullica Hill, Cummins said the district planned to form a committee to review the Teen PEP curriculum.

But nationally, with 60 percent of high school students sexually active by 12th grade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Santelli said many parents had already made their decision.

Overwhelmingly, he said, Americans agree that they want their children to get comprehensive sexual education.