The state Department of Education is implementing some major changes — and requesting others — to the controversial middle-school sex-ed program known as Pono Choices in response to a report released Friday.

Among the immediate changes: Parents will have to opt their children into the program, instead of out of it.

The report includes 11 detailed recommendations that the DOE hopes will improve the sex-ed course and make it more palatable for parents concerned about its contents.

The DOE report summarizes the findings, contained in a separate report, of a nine-member working group that the department convened in February and that was charged with reviewing the curriculum and coming up with suggestions on how to change it. 

Hawaii State Rep. Bob McDermott at news conference discussing the current Pono Choices sex education program. 1.9.14  ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hawaii State Rep. Bob McDermott discusses the Pono Choices sex education program at a news conference in January.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Some of the changes are at the discretion of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center on Disability Studies, which developed and owns the Pono Choices materials. The report requests that the university make certain changes to the contents, including that it increase information about the risks of anal sex and clarify that the anus isn’t a genital.

The DOE is making some changes immediately. One of most significant is that the department will now require parents to proactively opt their children into the program; before, children at schools where Pono Choices was taught automatically participated in the program unless their parents opted them out. The department also plans on giving parents more discretion over what their kids learn and ensuring that they have full access to the sex-ed materials.

“There is no avoiding the fact that sexual health education is a sensitive and divisive issue,” said DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe in a statement. “We took the concerns raised by members of the public seriously. Both the recommendations to (the University of Hawaii) and changes to the department’s internal processes reflect that.”

UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple declined to comment on the reports pending a closer look at their recommendations.

Concerns about Pono Choices, one of seven DOE-approved sex-ed programs, were expressed late last year during debates over same-sex marriage. Much of the criticism centered on the program’s normalization of gay couples and sex, including references to the anus as a genital. 

Several conservative lawmakers were outraged — namely Rep. Bob McDermott, who spearheaded an effort to get Pono Choices out of public schools and denounced the department for failing to publicize its contents. Hundreds of parents also submitted testimony to the Board of Education urging members to scrap the program.

The outcry was so strong that it prompted the DOE to temporarily suspend Pono Choices in November for a few weeks. The department resumed it in mid-December following a brief review, only to convene the working group two months later.

McDermott told Civil Beat that the announcement offers a “partial victory” to parents but that he has yet to read the reports in their entirety. 

He said he was particularly pleased that the DOE recommends altering the definition of the anus, changing Pono Choices into an opt-in rather than opt-out program and emphasizing the elevated risks of acquiring HIV through anal sex. 

He said, however, that he likely still has some concerns. 

“This is the new battleground,” he said. 

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