Sex-ed controversy

Chico Junior High cancels speaker after parents raise concerns

Sex education in public schools can be a sensitive subject, especially when it comes to religion and abstinence. So when Christopher LaRosa’s seventh-grade son came home from Chico Junior High School with a permission slip regarding a speaker from the Women’s Resource Clinic—a faith-based clinic that promotes saving sex for marriage—LaRosa had his reservations about signing it.

“It’s not about pro-choice or pro-life,” LaRosa said. “But as the father of a 12-year-old, I would think [the school] would have a speaker that would not even bring up any sort of message that was religiously based.”

LaRosa expressed his concerns on Facebook and sent e-mails to parents giving them a heads-up (the permission slip did not identify WRC as faith-based, and a link for information about the presentation’s content did not work, he said). He also contacted Chico Unified School District Superintendent Kelly Staley and the school’s staff. LaRosa’s wife, who works for another women’s clinic, even met with Principal John Bohannon to discuss the matter.

By Monday (May 2), just two days before WRC employee Jennifer Ronconi was scheduled to give the 45-minute presentation titled “The Risks of Early Sexual Activity,” Bohannon had called it off, saying he felt the school could deliver the same message in its two-week unit on reproduction and sexually transmitted infections sans the controversy.

“We felt like the message we were trying to deliver in the reproduction unit was being lost with upset parents,” he said. “The message is, if you’re only 12 or 13 years old, you need to think really hard before you make decisions about sexual activity.”

Staley echoed Bohannon’s reasoning, and said it was probably best to call off the WRC speaker. She said the district has a policy about controversial speakers that requires instructors to include all sides of an issue, but she rarely receives complaints from parents because curriculum and speakers are approved by the district well ahead of time.

Parents never complained about WRC speakers in the past, but they have complained about Planned Parenthood speakers, she said.

“So obviously people have different beliefs on both sides of this issue,” she said, noting that parents can always choose not to have their children participate.

This year would have been the third year WRC participated in Chico Junior High School’s unit on sexual reproduction and STIs, which is included in the seventh-grade life science course to compensate for not having a health class.

Ronconi started working at WRC about two years ago and has not given the presentation at the junior high before, but said she has been working to tweak the way the clinic presents information to youth in light of changing perceptions about abstinence.

“We do speak on abstinence, but we pinpoint it in a different way because we’re noticing ‘abstinence’ isn’t a popular word anymore,” she said. “[The presentation] is all about your self-worth and purity, having goals, a dream and a vision.”

Ronconi has spoken at Champion Christian and Chico Christian schools, but said she changed her presentation for Chico Junior High to avoid religious references. Her plan to encourage students to wait until marriage to have sex stems from the fact that the clinic defines “safe sex” as having only one partner in a lifetime, she said.

“I don’t bring God into my talks because of the respect I have for church and state—I really do respect that,” she said. “But bottom line, our kids need to know that it’s a dangerous game they’re playing by engaging in sexual activity.”

LaRosa said he signed the permission slip and would have let his son attend the presentation had it not been canceled. He did say, however, that he’d planned to attend and videotape the presentation so he could counter any one-sided or religious arguments to his son later on.

LaRosa’s major opposition to the speaker stemmed from a concern that students would visit the clinic in the future and be subjected to religious, anti-abortion attitudes, he said. (The clinic offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and pre- and post-abortion counseling, but does not provide contraception or abortions or refer patients elsewhere for the procedure, Ronconi said.)

Bohannon is confident his students will still get the message about safe sex, likely from other speakers in the unit, including an HIV-awareness representative and teen moms from Fair View High School, who will discuss how their decisions to engage in sexual activity have affected their lives, he said.

“The unit is on human reproduction, but part of that lesson is that we want to make sure kids are making informed choices,” he said. “We try to help them understand what the consequences of their choices can be, but it’s a general message. We’re not trying to preach anything.”

Ronconi said she does not know why parents expressed concerns, but acknowledged that the clinic does have a certain stigma in the community.

“I think there is a misunderstanding, but I’m not sure where it comes from,” she said. “I’m a little disappointed, because I was looking forward to showing that I am changing the way [the WRC] presents information to young people.”