Do you remember sex ed?

You know, the period in middle school when you learned about the penis and the vagina, reproduction and venereal disease, birth control and nocturnal emissions?

I took the class in seventh grade in the midwest, where I spent some of my formative years. I recall being alternately terrified and tantalized by the course, something compounded by the fact that I was just 12 and going through puberty.

In some ways the class came too late. Even though I had not had sex yet, some of my classmates had, one couple as early as the sixth grade.

That was a long time ago, back in the early 1970s. At the time, the word “gay” still meant “happy.” (I would not learn about the Stonewall riots of 1969 until well into college.)

It’s a very different world today, where kids in the Information Age are far more advanced than I was for my age. What should constitute a sex ed class today? A good place to start is Pono Choices.

‘Sexual Health Education’

Pono Choices is a “medically accurate” teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention program for grades 6-8, funded by the federal Office of Adolescent Health and developed by the University of Hawaii at Manoa Center on Disability Studies.

From January 2012 to May 2013, 12 DOE schools (along with five charter schools) implemented the Pono Choices curriculum as a part of sexual health education. (They don’t call it sex ed anymore.)

It’s been in the news recently, but not because of pregnancy and STIs. (That’s right — they are called STIs now, not STDs.)

The Hawaii Department of Education suspended implementation of Pono Choices 10 days ago so that it could conduct another review of the pilot curriculum. Pono Choices was pulled because of controversy that arose during the recent debates over same-sex marriage legislation.

Many opponents of Senate Bill 1, which legalized same-sex marriage in Hawaii beginning Dec. 2, expressed concern that the “homosexual lifestyle” — the ill-informed belief that people in the GLBT community somehow choose to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered — would now be required in public schools.

On Nov. 12, the last day of the special session, Republican state Sen. Sam Slom waved a copy of Pono Choices during his floor speech. He got it from Niu Valley Intermediate, one of the DOE schools using the program and part of his district.

Slom warned that the DOE was already effectively teaching kids that some types of sexual activity and relationships (read: anal and oral sex, and same-sex relations) are OK. Democrat Jill Tokuda, the Senate education chairwoman, quickly countered that the Hawaii Kai senator was misinformed.

He’s not the only one. As Leila Hayashida, the DOE’s assistant superintendent for the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support stated when Pono Choices was recalled, “Recent concerns over the department’s sexual education curriculum have resulted in misstatements and misunderstandings about the learning that takes place in the classroom.”

On Friday, the DOE and the Center on Disability Studies met to address the curriculum’s descriptions of “healthy, unhealthy and abusive relationships.” That’s the section that seems to have upset some folks the most.

In fact, it’s just a small part of Pono Choices, which is comprised of a teacher’s manual, a student workbook and a digital presentation. The pilot curriculum is actually one of seven DOE approved curricula for schools to use for sexual health education.

Carla and Sara

The bulk of Pono Choices is focused on teen pregnancy and STI prevention. It’s in compliance with the Board of Education’s 2010 abstinence-based sex education, and abstinence is stressed throughout the program.

So, what’s got people all hot and bothered?

It has to do with the “healthy relationships” section referenced by Hayashida. This teaching module on communication depicts three teen couples, including two boys, facing dilemmas:

Bill and James are just starting a relationship. On Thursday night at Bill’s house, they kiss for the first time. The next day they go to a party together. About an hour after they get there, Bill goes to kiss James. James moves away a bit. Their kiss was in private. James isn’t sure he wants to “go public” with the relationship yet. Bill asks James if he still feels uncomfortable, and James says yes. Bill asks James if he wants to leave the party, and James suggests they stay but maybe just have fun with their friends. They go and join a group playing pool.

The relationship is deemed “healthy” in Pono Choices. Two other teen relationships, both involving opposite-sex couples, are described as “unhealthy” and “abusive.”

According to the Center on Disability Studies, which I spoke with last week, the intent of this module is not to somehow endorse homosexuality or imply that only boy-girl relationships can be unhealthy and abusive. Rather, it is to recognize that same-gender relations are a reality and that classrooms should be inclusive and try to reach all learners.

Another part of Pono Choices, a module on myths of STI prevention, involves two girls:

Carla and her partner Sara have been secretly dating for seven months because they don’t want people at school to bully them for being lesbians. Carla doesn’t want to have sex because she’s very focused on her goal of getting a full scholarship for soccer. Sara has been telling Carla that they don’t have to worry about anything if they have sex because they can’t get pregnant.

A third section has to do with definitions: “Sex is defined as engaging in vaginal, anal or oral sex. Sex is defined this way because this is how pregnancy and STI transmission can occur.”

In other words, students are taught this definition so that they understand how not to cause pregnancy or get infected. Could someone have a problem with the DOE teaching that anal and oral sex are part of human sexuality? Sure. The reality, however, is that students are engaging in sexual activity at an early age.

Hawaii, according to published reports, has the sixth-highest chlamydia rate in the nation; 63 percent of cases come from those ages 15-24. Our teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average, with only nine states rating higher. And 54 percent of Hawaii’s high school students reported using condoms the last time they had intercourse — the lowest percentage of any state.

On that last point, Pono Choices has a section that teaches students how to put a condom on a wooden demonstrator. During the SB 1 testimony period at the Legislature, some parents complained that they did not want their children to learn that particular skill.

But, each of the 12 public schools that implemented Pono Choices held parent informational sessions prior to use. And there are several “ohana” activities in classrooms that students take home to discuss with their parents.

DOE regulations also allow parents the option of “opting-out” their child of any course or lesson that is considered “controversial.”

Kaiwi and Pailolo

The teaching of “medically accurate sexuality health education” in state-funded programs is a state law.

It requires “factual information that is age appropriate” and includes education on abstinence, contraception and disease prevention to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs, including HIV. “Medically accurate” means material verified or supported by research conducted by groups like the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pono Choices is the first teen pregnancy and STI prevention curriculum developed exclusively for youth in Hawaii. It uses the metaphor of a kai waa, or Hawaiian ocean canoe, to help students build a support base.

Pono is defined in the curriculum as “to act in ways that will result in bringing harmony within yourself, friends, family, and community.” The two teens featured most in Pono Choices are named Kaiwi and Pailolo.

Until the same-sex marriage debate, there appear to have been few complaints about Pono Choices. The Center on Disability Studies says the feedback it has received from teachers has been positive, and that they’d like to continue using the curriculum.

What’s so controversial about that?

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