By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The controversy over an abstinence-leaning sexual health presentation for middle school students continued at the May 3 Board of Education meeting, in which voices remained calm but feelings ran high.

Representatives from the First Choice Women's Resource Center spoke to the Board, giving an overview of the center's abstinence-based "Real Talk" sex education presentation, which they termed a "sexual risk avoidance" program.

First Choice, which has five New Jersey locations, including Montclair, had been invited to deliver that presentation to students at Glenfield Middle School. But the presentation was canceled after several parents complained about First Choice being an abstinence-only group with religious leanings.

“Our situation as a public school is to, where possible, and with certainly anything controversial ... is to be able to offer points of view to our classroom,” Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said near the start of Wednesday night's meeting.

Pamela Wormack, First Choice’s education director, and Aimee Huber, the group’s executive director, both attended the meeting and spoke at the microphone.

“We know first-hand the risks of early sexual activity because we see the heartache every day in our centers of women who learn they have a sexually transmitted disease, or teenage girls who are faced with the difficult decision of how to proceed with an unplanned pregnancy,” Huber said.

She said that Real Talk had been presented in several school districts across New Jersey, including in Newark, Maplewood, Plainfield, Jersey City, Montville, Chatham, West Morris Regional High School and Lakeland High School. She also presented several testimonials that she said were from students who had attended the presentation.

Huber claimed that the Real Talk is in line with state curriculum guidelines.

“It is our state’s law that abstinence must be stressed in our school’s health curriculum,” she said, adding that the program has been presented to 78,000 students over the past 16 years.

New Jersey statute 18A:35-4.20 says that any sex education in the schools “shall stress that abstinence is the only completely reliable means of eliminating the sexual transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and of avoiding pregnancy,” but does not say that sex education should exclude information about contraception and prophylactics.

Huber said she welcomed the opportunity to speak with any community members or parents about the presentation.

Wormack claimed that state officials have observed parts of Real Talk and have copies of First Choice’s literature. She also said that schools invite First Choice to give the Real Talk program.

The district has not made clear who invited First Choice to Glenfield School.

“I was a teacher for 10 years, so I know that when a teacher invites us in, it’s in accordance with what they’re teaching that week or those two weeks.”

She said that other groups are invited to speak during the same window of time. “By hearing from a variety of presenters, students and parents are given a fair overview of local community-based programs, as well as information to help them make informed decisions about their own sexual health.”

Besides Huber and Wormack, two parents spoke in support of Real Talk.

One, Esther Goetz, identified herself as a Stirling resident whose children attend the Watchung Hills school district. The other, Montclair resident Cynthia Strickland, urged the board and parents to check out the presentation first.

Sarah Tepper Blaine is one of the parents who protested the First Choice presentation.

When it was her turn at the microphone, Blaine read a segment from First Choice’s website. “First Choice says that they do this ‘with gentleness and respect, seeking to share Christ’s love and grace with every woman we serve,’” she read. “That is why they don’t belong in our public schools,” she said.

Blaine thanked the board for canceling the presentation and taking the time to investigate the matter, as well as taking steps to look into the health curriculum.

Blaine said parents deserve a full report on how the presentation was booked, and an apology.

“As a non-Christian, I find this personally offensive,” Blaine said. “It seems clear that the board needs to ensure that there’s policy in place to ensure that speakers invited to speak at our public schools are properly vetted prior to being invited.”

“Given the uneven delivery of puberty education to our children, I urge that the district to ensure the district engages an outside, university, academically associated professional development provider to provide our staff teaching health and puberty education with appropriate professional development,” she said as applause broke out. “And that the curriculum writing committee receives technical assistance, again, by a properly vetted academic provider, to ensure that what we end up with reflects best practices and is medically accurate and comprehensive.”

“First off, I think we should all be informed of who actually approved this group’s coming to Glenfield and how they got there to begin with,” said Lynn Fedeli. She noted that the state’s health curriculum includes comprehensive sex education, and that the state provides teaching certificates to certified health educators. She noted that Montclair has hired certified health teachers.

“Any family looking for abstinence education is free to do so at their own expense. And I don’t see the need to bring in outsiders to replicate or distort what is already a mandate of the state and something that the district is already in compliance with. Certainly when it’s not welcome.”

Rachael Quinn-Egan also said that she was shocked to learn about First Choice being invited to Glenfield.

“And I’m really surprised that people are here defending it and talking about it because, if I wanted my children to have that, I would have sent them to Catholic school,” she said. “I do not want my children influenced by any other religion, other than what we speak about at home, and I think it’s really inappropriate that people are coming to our schools and trying to influence our children. Public schools are not religious schools. It’s not appropriate.”

She also thanked the board for investigating the matter.

Former deputy mayor Kathryn Weller-Demming directed her comments to the First Choice representatives directly.

“When you stood up to speak about First Choice, of which I’m well acquainted, I imagined, bless your heart, that you were here in some misguided attempt to solicit your services to the board in a public meeting, having not considered scheduling a meeting with the relevant staff who make curriculum decisions and partner with outside groups,” Weller-Demming said. “And as a Glenfield graduate who was blessed, and fortunate, along with my peers, to receive comprehensive sexual education, I am even more shocked that one middle school community in town was targeted for an education that was not through a process where it would have been brought to all of the relevant students, if the district had deemed it indeed met with state statutes and fulfilled an educational need.”

She called sexual risk avoidance “the funniest phrase I’ve learned this week.”

"I struggled for a moment to hope you weren’t just trying to call abstinence by a scientific name, and maybe meant that you provided factual information to the best of our current scientific understanding," she added. "However, obviously that is not the intent of this group, and that is not an apppropriate silo to present to Montclair public school students.”

“I think it’s completely inappropriate. I don’t think that our public schools are a place where it’s appropriate to share religious ideas, moral ideas,” said Colleen Daly Martinez.

She said that it was important for teachers to have a grounding in a curriculum that was science-based and medically sound. She said that she had warned the board last year about a similar incident in Verona, in which a religious-leaning group had been invited to give a talk at one of the schools.

“Please, do everything that you can to make sure that our schools and our administrators are making decisions responsibly, and when irresponsible decisions are made, please hold them accountable. This is so dangerous. And its unacceptable if there will be no consequences for this poor decision making,” she said.

“It somewhat alarmed me how many districts they’ve gone to, this Christian pro-birth group,” Deirdre Birmingham said. “People may not even realize that this is going on in their schools.”

“When I heard about the Glenfield situation, I was pissed,” Board member Joe Kavesh said. “I have nothing against Christianity, but I believe firmly separation of church and state ... that was a rather seminal Supreme Court decision in 1973, so we really ought to keep political agendas out of our schools.” He noted that he believes in abstinence, and said that people are believe whatever they choose to, but that he was “irked” to hear about the issues with the presentation, and that he shared the concerns of parents.

Board member Eve Robinson said her mother was a professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work, and that she was also the founder of the Network for Family Life Education. “And it was under my mother that the legislation was passed to require all school districts to provide family life education, a state-approved curriculum in family life education. And it is very hurtful to me to hear that we are not implementing that curriculum in a way that meets the students’ needs, and therefore, feel like we have to have somebody from the outside come in to fulfill that.” She remembered the stress that getting the legislation passed took on her mother.

“I’m going to make it my cause right now to make sure that the district gets up to snuff so that we don’t have this misunderstanding about who should be teaching this, and when, to our students.”