The Sex-Ed Divide

If Maple Grove Senior High chose a prom queen, Ashley
Gort would have had a good shot at the crown. Ashley, a petite and popular junior
with delicate features, wore deep-sea blue to the event, accessorizing her fully
beaded gown with a blue necklace like the one Kate Winslet wore in Titanic
and matching blue rhinestones scattered over her pale blond hair. Her boyfriend,
Mike Conlin, borrowed his uncle's Lexus to ferry Ashley to dinner at Landmark
Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Driving away from the restaurant on an
unseasonably warm night a few months ago, the couple looked as if they might be
headed off for a romantic evening. But while many of their classmates spent the
wee hours in rented hot tubs or boogying in Minneapolis clubs, Ashley and Mike
drove the half-hour north to a friend's finished basement in their suburban
hometown. With their parents stationed upstairs and peeking in at regular
intervals, Ashley, Mike, and a few other couples watched movies, played
Ping-Pong, and talked until dawn. They did not drink, smoke, or, as Ashley puts
it, "touch each other inappropriately."

"We couldn't get like all close with each other," Ashley explains. Per
an agreement they struck with their parents, the kids were allowed to cuddle and
hold hands, but physical contact ended there. "Couples weren't allowed in rooms
by themselves," says Ashley. "There was nothing else you could do, really."

If such rules sound strange, they don't to Ashley and many of the other kids
enrolled in the Osseo School District's abstinence-until-marriage class, which
teaches students that sex outside of wedlock is physically, emotionally, and
spiritually dangerous, while carefully omitting information about birth control,
homosexuality, abortion, and other topics that might muddy the message. The
curriculum includes sections on "good touch versus bad touch" and refusal skills,
and the "Sexuality, Commitment and Family" textbook features a diagram meant to
help students figure out exactly where to draw the line (arrows endorse
hand-holding and talking, but a red danger sign appears at necking).

While almost a quarter of the nation's school districts now teach abstinence
this way, Osseo schools have earned a page in sex-ed history for offering both of
the conflicting approaches to teen sex that have riven the country. Students here
can take either the new abstinence class or the traditional course, which both
warns kids against sex and prepares them for it with information about condoms
and such. For Ashley, the choice was simple: "They talk about gays and lesbians
and stuff like that, and I personally don't want to hear about that," she says of
the older option. "I want to marry the opposite sex. I want to spend my life with
that one person and share things with that one person and not other people."

For Josh Goldberg, a baseball player and good student who is in Ashley's grade
at Maple Grove, the sex-ed decision was also a no-brainer. Josh went for the more
explicit of the two health courses. Though some students have taken to calling
this the "slutty" class, Josh would hardly fit anyone's definition of the term. As
a sophomore, he counted himself among his school's "normal people group," which
he translated to mean that he and his friends didn't drink or go to parties and
"there's a lot of people who are a lot more weird than us." Indeed, when I met
Josh on the first of several visits to Maple Grove, he and his friends seemed to
be spending most of their free time jumping up and down on a trampoline in the
Goldbergs' yard and playing with walkie-talkies. ("Come in, Josh. Come in, Josh.
You're going to fail your driving test." Hysterical laughter.) Still, when it was
time to sign up for health--a requirement for graduation--Josh and most of his
friends opted for what he calls the "regular class," while most of Ashley's
friends joined her in taking the abstinence-until-marriage course.

And so it is with students in Osseo's three senior-high and four junior-high
schools: Kids who share Bunsen burners and school colors and class presidents
split into two camps to hear two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives on sex.
This sorting clearly has something to do with the students' own feelings about
sex. (Of her few friends who didn't take abstinence class, Ashley worries, "Gosh,
I would have thought they would've liked to be in this class.") But the division
has even more to do with their parents. Between the two classes and the two adult
factions still fighting bitterly over what should go on in the classes, it can
sometimes seem as if the national fault line over sex education runs right
through Osseo, Minnesota.

It was a snowy morning six years ago when Ashley's mother, Jeri
Gort, felt the first rumblings of Osseo's war over sex ed. The day started out
like any other in the Gort house; Jeri kissed her husband, Randy, good-bye as he
headed off to work, wrangled Ashley and her younger sister through breakfast, and
then bundled up her daughters and headed out toward the bus stop. When she got
there, another mother mentioned that Ashley's fifth-grade teacher would define
sexual intercourse in class that year--and everything shifted for Gort. "At that
moment, I truly believe the Holy Spirit came down and made me teary and gave me
the grieving of the heart," she marveled recently. Standing on the corner,
watching her daughters and their friends run around in the snow, the innocence of
all of Osseo's children suddenly weighed on her. "I knew then that things needed
to change."

That Jeri Gort would be the one to change things in Osseo was also, as
she sees it, a matter of divine intervention. "Most Christian women are soft, but
I'm not soft and I'm not sweet. I'm an oddity," she said recently, as if she were
explaining the fact of her blue eyes or her Minnesota-blond hair. "God made me a
little rough around the edges. That's why He spoke to me that day."

As she stands just five feet tall in white canvas sneakers, with a gentle,
Midwestern voice, Gort's rough edges aren't immediately apparent. Still, she is
the one most people around here credit--or blame, depending on their point of
view--for first stoking tensions over the Osseo schools' approach to sex and then
pushing through the district's Solomonic attempt to resolve them. Starting from
that simple bus-stop revelation, Gort managed to create an abstinence class in a
school district where most parents didn't see the need for one and thus set up a
road map for conservatives around the country who wanted to do the same.

After hearing about the imminent lesson, Gort decided to "opt" Ashley out of,
taking her to lunch on definition day rather than having her exposed to the
information. Shortly after, she took herself down to the Osseo District office to
review all the sex-education materials and began speaking at parents' meetings
about what she saw there. Not only did sex come up earlier than she would have
liked, she reported to parents throughout the district, but the subject was
introduced before marriage was. Perhaps most troubling to Gort were the
descriptions of different methods of contraception, which she took as an
invitation for kids to have sex. "Only half of high-school kids have sex," she
told one group, citing the figure that has become the half-empty glass of
sex-education debates. "What about the kids who don't have sex? What about
supporting them?"

Josh Goldberg's mother, Tobe, one of the parents assembled at that meeting in
the Maple Grove Elementary School library, was more concerned with preventing
disease and pregnancy in the half of kids who inevitably will have sex. "You
can't have too much information," the mother of two is fond of saying. "That
woman wants to get rid of sex ed," is what she actually whispered to her husband
Arlin that night as they sat squeezed into the child-size chairs in the library.
The Goldbergs had already had "the talk" with Josh and his then-10-year-old
brother, Noah, making sure that they knew the basics of reproduction and why it's
so important to put it off until later. But Goldberg also wanted her boys to hear
about both sex and birth control at school. So when Gort said she was starting a
group to reconsider the sex-ed program, Goldberg joined.

Officially, Osseo's Human Sexuality Curriculum Advisory Committee was just
supposed to make recommendations to the school board about how to update
sex-education material. In practice, though, monthly meetings were both more
intimate and more explosive than that, with Gort leading the committee majority
and Goldberg serving as the spokesperson for the much smaller faction that wanted
to keep sex ed as it was. The two sides were able to agree on a few things--that
pictures of animals with their babies were appropriate for the younger children,
for instance, and that fifth-graders were ready to learn about the physical
changes that happen in puberty. But on most other issues, people who might have
otherwise been exchanging niceties in the supermarket ended up attacking one
another's views on the most personal of questions: Did the clitoris deserve
mention in a discussion of female anatomy? Did children need to learn about
masturbation? Homosexuality?

Gort suggested that the subject of abortion, which was introduced in eighth
grade along with sexual orientation and masturbation, offended some parents and
should be removed. In response, another mother muttered something about returning
to back-alley days, slammed her eighth-grade textbook shut, and--as others in the
dwindling Goldberg camp had already done--stomped out of the sexuality-committee
room for good. Committee members also spent months arguing over birth control and
the nature of pornography.

As the debate became more specific (several meetings were devoted entirely to
the failure rates of condoms), their positions reflected a more fundamental
divide. You could see it as political--Goldberg, who eventually became the only
person in her camp, was also the only self-described liberal among about two
dozen committee regulars. Or you could see the district's struggle as part of its
booming development. The 66-square-mile patch that makes up the Osseo School
District used to be potato country, but in the past 20 years, while the number of
students in the district has doubled, the area has morphed into the kind of tidy
suburb that so many Americans now call home. And as curlicues of manicured
streets have unfurled and Babies "R" Us, Barnes and Noble, and Starbucks have
sprung into service, some have mourned for Osseo's rural past.
Sexuality-committee chairman Dean Potts seemed nostalgic both for Osseo's roots
and for his own boyhood on a North Dakota farm, where he learned both his
conservative values and a certain frankness about sex. ("At grade level four or
five, I was personally out pulling lambs out of ewes," Potts recalled fondly.)

The religious split was even plainer. One of a handful of Jews in Maple Grove
and the only Jew on the committee, Tobe Goldberg reached an icy standoff with
Potts, who was studying to be a minister in the Church of the Nazarene throughout
his tenure as chairman. Another committee member, Tony Hoffman, quoted Scripture
when he argued against an educational video that he felt wrongly portrayed gay
men with AIDS as victims. And while Goldberg stopped even exchanging
pleasantries with her fellow members, a core group of mothers Gort calls the
"prayer warriors" was gathering regularly at her house to pray. The prayer
warriors prayed for the success of the abstinence class in their cars, while
walking, or sometimes even in the hallways and parking lots outside important
sexuality-committee meetings.

The prayer warriors were also there when the school board formalized these
ideological differences three years ago. Jeri Gort talks of the plan that the
board approved by a 3-2 vote as a compromise. But Tobe Goldberg didn't experience
it that way. Not only did the school board create the new two-track health
program over her objections; it also approved the committee's proposal to change
the definition of sex that all students would hear. After that board meeting,
which stretched until 3 A.M. sexual intercourse was officially no longer
an act between any two people but one that occurs between married parents of
opposite sex "when the father's erect penis is inserted into the mother's
vagina."

On the wall of sex-ed instructor Chris Meisch's classroom
there is a saying spelled out in orange and black construction paper: "No
knowledge is more crucial than that of health." Tacked up nearby are posters
addressing why it's important not to drink and drive and why tobacco is so
dangerous. On the first day of the family-life section of Meisch's third-period
abstinence-until-marriage class, there is also a question on the board: "What is
love?" Students filtering in after the 9:37 bell obligingly search for an answer.
"The feeling you have for people in your family?" one boy asks hopefully. "When
you care about someone a lot, even more than you can say?" offers another. When
no one comes up with the definition he's looking for, Meisch, a young,
athletic-looking teacher, prompts the 10th and 11th graders, asking them to name
different kinds of love. By the time they work their way to "boyfriend-girlfriend
love"--past love for parents, pets, and chocolate milk--the point is getting
clearer: Love doesn't always involve sex. "You fall into infatuation," says
Meisch, his tone making it clear that this is not the desired outcome. "You grow
into love." A few students jot this down in their notebooks.

The two versions of high-school health impart many of the same lessons:
Drugs are bad for you, exercise good, leafy greens essential. But the
abstinence-until-marriage version grapples with the more amorphous questions of
values in a way that its counterpart does not. The new course takes the long
view, explaining that marriage between a man and a woman has been the norm
throughout history and that the only safe sex is "with a marriage partner who is
having sex only with you." Students hear about what makes a compatible mate and
even why they should want to mate in the first place. (Parenting, as one
abstinence textbook explains, is "a tremendously rewarding commitment based on
responsibility and self-sacrifice.";;;) When the subject of birth control comes up,
teachers are supposed to discuss only its failures and emphasize its inadequacy.

Students in abstinence class not only hear this particular take on love and
romance, they must also present it. Though Ashley did her oral report on tobacco,
others whose presentations involved more controversial topics had to cast them
carefully in the negative. So when it came time for her report on teens and
sexually transmitted diseases, Carol Christensen steered clear of the "good
stuff" about birth control that she says she would have mentioned in the other
class, trying instead to make a loopy argument that birth control is bad because
of its inconvenience. "Like who's going to go and take out a measuring spoon and
measure out the exact spermicide at 1:30 in the morning on a Tuesday night?" she
says.

In the interest of preventing such situations, abstinence class offers dating
exercises. One homework assignment has students write out their dating standards
(extra credit if parents sign them). Another asks, "What do you consider the
values of postponing sexual gratification?" Several sections advise on setting
limits, though by 10th grade Ashley Gort has figured out many of her own.

"If I know that a person has had a history, or whatever, then I don't get
involved," she explained to me one afternoon as we sat in "Maple Grove Free," a
family-oriented evangelical church located near the Dairy Queen here. Though she
was then "on hold" with the captain of the basketball team, Ashley had never gone
long without a date. The key to such lighthearted socializing was to communicate:
"You have to make sure you pick the kind of person who feels the way you do; then
it's easier to bring up the subject and everything."

Her mother's guidelines also may have helped. Boys were allowed to come by the
house and even hang out with Ashley in the family room. (One time, when she was
grounded, three stopped by to pay tribute in a single evening.) But per house
rules, the family-room door always remained open. And while Jeri trusted Ashley
and the Holy Ghost, whom she credited with giving Ashley the desire to stay pure,
she was cheered that her daughter's romances never seemed to last more than a few
weeks.

Meanwhile, Josh Goldberg spent his 10th grade more engaged with
school and sports than with girls. Still, he felt he had made the right choice
about sex ed; abstinence class seemed to leave some teens unprepared. Other
students had similar objections to the new class. The Harbinger, the Maple Grove
High student paper, weighed in with several articles and a searing, unanimous
staff editorial condemning the district, the human-sexuality committee, and the
school board for "offering a curriculum of questionable value that is as
deceptive as it is bigoted." The writers took particular offense over the
abstinence textbook, which warned against marrying someone of a different
economic, cultural, or religious background. When one mother who supports
abstinence confronted the Harbinger's faculty adviser in the school parking lot,
tempers flared. She angrily complained that the editorial quoted the abstinence
materials out of context, and the adviser, as she tells it, shot back that she
was "desperately sad as a fellow Christian that you people have decided to make
one of God's greatest gifts such a shameful and divisive thing."

The battle that had already torn up the sexuality committee was
spreading. Sam Garst, the father of a senior in the district and the retired
CEO of a deer-repellant company, founded Osseo Parents for Straight Talk
About Sex and printed a brochure with the headline "How Do You Feel About
Spending $96,000 More To Educate Our Kids Less?" (The total cost of new
abstinence-education materials and arrangements for splitting up students
actually ended up closer to $130,000.) Though he got a few positive responses,
Garst also received several phone calls informing him that he was going to hell,
dozens of angry e-mails (including one accompanied by a computer virus that wiped
out his hard drive), and piles of hate letters. "Hey Sammy," read a typical one.
"You go ahead and hand out condoms and pills to your kids, we'll teach ours right
and wrong."

Meanwhile, across the ideological divide--and a couple of streets--Garst's
neighbor, Scott Brokaw, also felt that he was being attacked for his beliefs. One
of two Osseo school board members who championed the new abstinence class, Brokaw
says he was wrongly accused of beating his wife by someone who was angry over his
position on the sex-ed curriculum. A radio-advertising salesman who calls his
opponents "vile and mean-spirited people," Brokaw ended up hiring a lawyer to
defend himself against the charge. On another occasion, when Brokaw and his wife
were eating in a local restaurant, a table of teachers and parents opposed to the
class sent him a drink that, the waitress informed him, was known as a Blow Job.

For Osseo students, the cost of choosing a side can loom even larger. When
he was a junior at Maple Grove High, Andy Caruso went so far as to obtain a
waiver of the district's health-class requirement because he feared the
assumptions kids might make about his sex life whichever track he chose. "It
seems like a personal thing that you don't want all your teachers and your
friends to know," he said.

The matter of public perception is, not surprisingly, particularly
sticky for girls, who make up the majority of students in Osseo's
abstinence-until-marriage classes. Even in a district with female student-body
presidents and girls' basketball teams that make it to the state finals, girls are
still bound by the "hush-hush" rule, as Jessie Sodren, who took the
abstinence-until-marriage class, calls it. According to her then-boyfriend, who
took the other class, the opposite is true for boys. "Guys just say, like,
'cool,'" he explains. "They just give each other high fives and stuff."

Another couple who split up for health class is less candid. "I've always
known I would save sex for marriage. It's just the way I was brought up," says
the girl, a 16-year-old sophomore, whose plans for future include "doing
something with money, making it grow and making more money." There would have
been no reason to doubt her story had her best friend not mentioned the day
before that this same girl had just gone through a terrifying
two-and-a-half-month pregnancy scare.

By all student accounts, many sexually active kids end up in the abstinence
class--a situation that some attribute to parents who sign them up for it without
knowing what's really going on. "I know the kids that were in there and, like, I
know some of them shouldn't be in there," explains Josh Goldberg, raising his
eyebrows meaningfully. "I don't think their parents have any idea what's going on
in their life." Ashley Gort, too, recognizes this. "Some of them, if they do do
it, they're probably not even going to marry the guy," she told me, shaking her
head.

Indeed, students end up in one class as opposed to the other for all sorts of
reasons. Carol Christensen took abstinence because the traditional class
conflicted with Spanish. Another student, who identifies herself as a born-again
Christian and whose mother got pregnant at 16, signed up for abstinence but
landed in the traditional class as the result of an administrative error. And one
sophomore says she took abstinence because she heard it was easier than the
alternative. When I asked her what she hoped to get out of it, she replied, "a
C."

But even kids with the clearest of intentions can't know
what's in store for them. For Ashley, the surprise came in the form of Mike, the
handsome senior with three jobs who, for the past 10 months, has replaced all her
other admirers. With a cell phone and her grandfather's hulking old Cadillac now
at her disposal, Ashley can see Mike whenever she's not doing homework, working
at Old Navy, or at dance-line practice.

The Gorts do have a few hard-and-fast rules though: If Ashley doesn't
check in, she loses the car; her weekend curfew is midnight, no exceptions; and
when she comes in, she has to kiss her mother goodnight.

"I have a good nose--I can smell pot from a mile away," says Jeri Gort, who is
not above sniffing during this tenderest of evening rituals. "I tell her and her
friends, if you start drinking, there's no way you can be a virgin when you
graduate." Even with all the work she's done to make sure that her daughter gets
the right messages, it still comes down to guarding and worrying for Gort.

The Goldbergs, too, are nervously watching a new relationship blossom. Josh's
girlfriend Janessa first started jumping on the trampoline along with Josh and his
friends at the end of sophomore year. Next came cuddling on the couch, long phone
calls that Josh sometimes conducted under a blanket if his parents were around,
and his crash course in rose buying.

Even though they have already had "the talk," the Goldbergs find themselves
venturing back into that uncomfortable territory lately, reminding Josh about the
girl across the street who got pregnant at 16. They're hoping that their message,
along with the instruction he's gotten in school, will protect their son from all
that could go wrong on his way to adulthood.

It's not terribly different from what's going on just five minutes away at the
Gorts' house.


Research for this article was supported by a grant from the National Press Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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