FARGO — "On a scale of 1 to 10, how well did your own sex education experience prepare you for the future?"
Katie Christensen, education and outreach manager for Planned Parenthood, posed this question to a room of 15 North Dakota teachers on Thursday, June 6, as part of Planned Parenthood's Safe Spaces workshop.
The program aims to give K-12 teachers tools to provide comprehensive sex education for students, but the program has faced backlash. Religious groups and state lawmakers have urged North Dakota State University to end its partnership with the program because abortions are performed at many Planned Parenthood locations.
Inside an NDSU classroom on Thursday, teachers placed themselves on an imaginary line across the front of a classroom. The further most left indicated a rating of one — that their own sex ed experience was not helpful. The farthest right meant a score of 10 — that as students, teachers received correct information and had open conversations.
Every teacher ranked their experience below five.
“Is there a negative five option?” one of the teachers joked.
As students, teachers said they often got the wrong information in sex ed classes or received information only on basic anatomy, not knowledge about fostering healthy relationships or preventing sexually transmitted infections.
“My teacher told our class the first time you have sex, you will get pregnant,” one teacher shared.
Teachers repeated the activity, ranking conversations they had with their parents about sex education. Despite differences in age, race and hometown, almost all teachers gave low rankings. All but two ranked themselves below three.
Many parents said nothing at all to the then-teens about sex, teachers shared. Two teachers noted that clear expectations, access to information, and the ability to answer questions led to their higher rankings.
"Sex education is really about preparing students for their entire lives," Christensen said. "Where do we want our students and children to rank their experiences in 10 and 20 years?"
Each summer, Planned Parenthood holds the two-day Safe Spaces workshop for teachers throughout the state. The goal is for teachers to gain tools and skills to be nonjudgemental sources for students, said Amy Jacobson, North Dakota’s director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood.
So far, about 130 North Dakota teachers have participated in the training. This is the fourth year Planned Parenthood has offered the summer course for teachers, part of a renewable three-year federal grant to do so. The grant program was implemented under the Obama administration and renewed under Trump. The current grant runs through 2020.
The workshop does not supply teachers with a specific curriculum, instead, it emphasizes a dialogue between teachers and students about a comprehensive sex ed approach, and encourages trust between teachers and students and normalizing conversations about sex with teens.
During the workshop, teachers engaged in various discussions and activities to promote understanding of a more comprehensive sex ed approach, which includes topics such as positive youth development, healthy relationships, sexuality, and body image. Planned Parenthood says they do not promote abortions, and no mention of abortions was made during Thursday's afternoon session.
Jacobson said Planned Parenthood wants students to have information about all options during pregnancy, including abortion and adoption. Also, she said the group emphasizes the importance of personal choice and family values.
Teachers pay a $50 NDSU credit fee to attend the workshop and can earn a continued learning credit for attendance. Teachers are required to earn some continuing education credits each year, according to the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board.
Teachers attending the Safe Spaces workshop Thursday declined to comment for this story.
Two faith-based groups — Concerned Women for America and Family Policy Alliance — have urged NDSU to cancel the workshops. State legislators have also asked NDSU to end the partnership with Planned Parenthood.
Opponents of Safe Spaces say they don't want pro-abortion messages to reach teenagers.
“I guarantee you … there will be discussion over abortion, and how it relates to kids and how that should definitely be put forward as an option for them and so on,” Mark Jorritsma, president and executive director of North Dakota’s Family Policy Alliance branch previously told The Forum. “We don’t believe that is correct. We don’t believe abortion should be an option.”
Many school districts still implement an abstinence-only sex ed program. Under North Dakota's Century Code, health curriculum must include information on the risks associated with sexual activity with an emphasis that abstaining from sexual activity outside marriage has "social, psychological, and physical health gains." Widely, studies have shown that abstinence-only programs don’t prevent teenagers from engaging in sexual activity.
Nationwide, 40% of high school students have had sex, according to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In North Dakota, 37% of teens are sexually active. That figure is 58% for high school seniors in North Dakota.
Nationally and in North Dakota, these numbers have dropped in the last 10 years, according to the CDC. But North Dakota rates haven’t fallen as much as other states.
A drop in teen pregnancy, the CDC reports, is in part due to new measures to teach comprehensive sex education, not just abstinence-only.
Readers can reach education reporter Emma Beyer, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5535 or firstname.lastname@example.org