HELENA — A Los Angeles-based sex education expert and author told hundreds of Helena residents Wednesday that a proposed health enhancement curriculum is neither comprehensive nor science-based and is dangerous to the youth in the community.
Miriam Grossman said she hopes her talks provide some clarity for the debate that surfaced in Helena after the curriculum committee presented the 62-page draft at a June meeting of the Helena School Board.
“I would not want my children exposed to what’s in there,” she said. “A child thinks different, experiences the world different than an adult. A child is not a miniature adult. Children are vulnerable in a way we as adults have forgot.”
Grossman, a child psychiatrist, medical doctor and author, spoke twice Wednesday after a group of opponents of the proposed curriculum funded her visit. About 600 people attended her afternoon talk at Carroll College and even more sat through the nearly two-hour evening event at Helena Middle School.
She said the proposal won’t help children understand their bodies and won’t empower them with information, but rather leave them misinformed and vulnerable.
Grossman addressed several specific parts of the draft curriculum. She said she would not teach third-graders that exchanging bodily fluids can give you deadly diseases, but would rather tell them that when they cough or sneeze they should cover their mouths not to spread germs.
“That’s enough,” she said.
Retired Helena doctor Bill Ballinger attended the afternoon presentation and said he found it “ordinary and superficial.” He said it seems as though Grossman promotes sexual abstinence until marriage. “That’s nice, except it doesn’t work,” he said.
However, if Ballinger were on the School Board and were asked to vote on the current document, he’d vote no, he said, because some information is presented too early.
That’s been the contention of many in the community who feel kindergartners through third-graders shouldn’t be taught the proper names for their genitalia or that fifth-graders shouldn’t be taught the various forms of sexual intercourse.
Grossman said the document is not abstinence-based, which state standards require. She said it instead leaves it up for discussion, with the sentence “teenagers who decide to engage in sexual behaviors must also decide about pregnancy and STI/HIV prevention.”
In elementary school the proposed draft document teaches students “that barrier methods of contraception can … greatly reduce but not prevent sexually transmitted infections.” Grossman said diseases like herpes live in the skin not covered by condoms. She said the protection from condoms is 20 to 50 percent.
“Anyone who believes condoms will greatly reduce risk is living in la-la land,” she said.
Grossman also spent a lot of time talking about the biology of the cervix, and how until a female is in her 20s, the organ is susceptible to diseases because the cells have yet to build up in the transformation zone. Once girls are older, these cells thicken and provide females with natural protection against diseases, such as human papillomavirus, or HPV.
She said this is biological proof that young girls are not physically ready for sexual relations.
“The curriculum omits why disease affects girls so rampantly,” Grossman said.
She said that when it comes to sex education, young people are being taught that they can play with fire.
“When sexual freedom reigns, sexual health suffers,” Grossman said.
Helena School Board Chairman Michael O’Neil disagreed with Grossman’s perception of the document. The purpose is not to promote sexual freedom, he said, but to strongly promote that young people should delay sexual activity.
“There’s no way to talk about the dangers unless you talk about sexual activity,” O’Neil said.
Superintendent Bruce Messinger Grossman shares the same concerns as the district about the health and well-being of children.
“Her very point is the reason (sex ed) is in the curriculum,” he said.
He described the event as informative yet disturbing, because Grossman manipulated the situation and the curriculum to make her point and appease the crowd, he said.
Local child psychiatrist John Tupper, on the other hand, enjoyed the talk.
“It was a great talk,” he said. “She came at it from a health perspective. It helps us to think more clearly about what we are trying to do with our curriculum.”
Tupper said some tough questions being raised about the draft curriculum are more rights issues than health issues.
“It’s a social mission to teach kids whose parents aren’t doing their jobs,” he said.
Tupper prefers more of an individual approach. “Information should come when they need it,” he said. “Kids will let you know when they are ready for it. If they come to you with questions, I think you can give them information stepwise until you’ve given them enough to process.”
A press release from the Montana Human Rights Network said Grossman was in town to push an anti-sex-education agenda and attempt to further divide the community. It said “Grossman’s opinions are contrary to the well-established position of the medical and educational community.”
The release urged community members to stay home and talk to their kids about having sex instead of attending the talks.
“Our youth need and deserve the truth about their bodies and sex,” said Niki Zupanic, public-policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. “Helena’s proposed curriculum gives them the information they need to maintain healthy bodies and healthy relationships. To offer them anything less is shortchanging their futures.”
Since the district first rolled out the draft in June it’s been flooded with feedback. Administrators are now making changes to the draft, and those changes will be presented at a Sept. 14 meeting. A public hearing is set for Sept. 28, and a final vote is expected at the board meeting on Oct. 12.