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Republican councilors once again hold up funding for after-school sex ed program

Two of the GOP councilors cited concerns about the right of parents to know what their child discusses or shares during the program.
Republican councilors once again hold up funding for after-school sex ed program
Linds Jakows, co-founder of 603 Equality (left), joins Sara Smith of Pembroke, and Maura Willing and Liz-Anne Platt, both of Concord, to urge the Executive Council to support a decade-old sex education program that Republican members have questioned. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

For a third time, Republican executive councilors have halted funding for a decade-old sex education program aimed at reducing teen pregnancy in Sullivan County and Manchester, which have the state’s highest teen birth rates.

The three councilors who voted to hold off a vote on the $682,000 contract Wednesday, Joe Kenney, David Wheeler, and Ted Gatsas, have previously approved funding for the program, according to Executive Council records. Gov. Chris Sununu reminded them of that after Wheeler said he wants to read the high school and middle school curriculum before he votes.

“So you’ve voted for this contract in this curriculum before and you want to read it now, years later?” Sununu asked.

Councilors Cinde Warmington, a Democrat, and Janet Stevens, a Republican, have supported untabling the contract and voting on it.

“One of the core foundational principles in this program is teaching,” Warmington said, noting that it is an evidence-based, factually correct curriculum. “… They can access this information online, on the internet in a very dangerous format, where they can be misinformed.”

Stephanie Slayton, director of the TLC Family Resource Center in Claremont, said in an email prior to Wednesday’s meeting that uncertainty about funding has forced her agency to cancel its fall classes. She said without funding, the center won’t be able to continue the program for 75 adolescents over the next two years. Amoskeag Health in Manchester has said its program, expected to reach 975 students in the next three years, is also in jeopardy.

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Wheeler and Kenney cited concerns about the right of parents, who must give their children permission to participate, to know what their child discusses or shares during the program. According to Wheeler, the curriculum states information shared by students during the program will be kept confidential. Wheeler also said he’s concerned lessons on abstinence are limited to sexual activity that can lead to pregnancy and not other activity, including same-sex interactions. Gatsas said in interviews prior to the meeting that he voted with Kenney and Wheeler to give them more time to investigate their concerns.

Jake Leon, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he was unable to share the curriculum because it does not have the rights to share proprietary materials.

The evidence-based Get Real curriculum was developed by Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts but is delivered by community agencies. It is open to people up to age 19 and pregnant or parenting people up to age 21. It targets at-risk youth, including those living in homeless shelters and foster care and who have been victims of human trafficking.

Lessons cover abstinence, the reproductive process, sexually transmitted diseases, and contraception. According to Get Real’s website, its curriculum aligns with the National Sexuality Education Standards on additional topics related to understanding gender identity and expression, and relationship and decision-making skills.

“The Get Real curriculum also emphasizes teaching students the skills they need to make healthy decisions and reinforces family communication and parent engagement in their children’s healthy relationships and responsible decision making,” Slayton said in an email.

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Since TLC Family Resource Center began offering the program in 2012, Sullivan County has seen its teen birth rate drop from 20.27 per 1,000 teens to 11.86 in 2021, Slayton said. That rate is still twice the state average of 5.44 per 1,000 teens, an indication the program is still needed, Slayton said.

When the pandemic forced the program online, enrollment declined and teen birth rates began increasing.

Linds Jakows, co-founder of 603 Equality, was at the State House Wednesday, joining a group calling on councilors to support the contract.

“A lot of people are crying about parental rights and saying that that somehow takes away their right to be a parent,” they said. “But also students deserve to have safe places. When I was in high school, I was out to my favorite teacher and gradually came out to a few of my friends … because I had a parent at home who it wouldn’t have been safe to come out to. Everybody deserves to come out on their own timeline and when they’re ready, and when they feel safe.”

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England criticized the vote, noting that the council’s prior rejections of contracts for the state’s low-income family planning program also limited access to birth control, among other reproductive health care services.

“Opportunities such as these evidence-based, optional, after-school sexual education programs, which require parental consent, are critical to the health and well-being of our young people and our community,” said Liz Canada, advocacy manager for PPNNE/Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund. “These programs encourage ongoing parental engagement, support parents continuing the conversation at home, and foster trusting relationships between the facilitators and families. These programs work and are beloved by their communities.”

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They continued: “And yet, the Executive Council has continued to refuse to even vote on the funding. This is shortsighted, politically motivated, and jeopardizes the ability of New Hampshire’s most vulnerable young people to get the critical information and support they need to form healthy relationships, avoid sexually transmitted infections, prevent unintended pregnancy, and parent effectively.”

Cornerstone, a Christian advocacy group that has opposed abortion and the family planning contracts, has urged its supporters to demand executive councilors reject funding. Executive Director Shannon McGinley could not be reached immediately after the vote Wednesday. In an email prior to the meeting, she said Planned Parenthood’s involvement in writing the curriculum is a problem. She also opposes the content.

“We object to the government education system being used to promote pornography addiction and promulgate gender ideology,” she wrote. She did not elaborate.

This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com.