EDUCATION INTERRUPTUS

A SCOTTSDALE PARENTS' GROUP WITH TIES TO PAY ROBERTSON IS MAKING SURE THE SEX-ED CURRICULUM DOESN'T GO ALL THE WAY

It's three days before Christmas, and tired shoppers--including Jennifer, a preppy young woman--are resting against a marble fountain at Fashion Square. A graduate of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Jennifer's home on break. She's a junior in college.

With her are two boys, both high school freshmen, both wearing baseball caps. Jon is Jennifer's brother. Dave's a friend. Jon attends St. Mary's High School, a private school; Dave goes to Saguaro.

When a reporter asks about sex education, the boys titter and snort, Ö la Beavis and Butt-head. Heh heh. Heh heh. But Jennifer isn't giggling. Over the din, she explains that she is glad she waited until she was in college, and in love, to have sex. "It makes me sick to my stomach" to hear about 13-year-olds having sex, she says. And yet she supports teaching freshmen like Jon and Dave about where to buy condoms and how contraceptives work. You have to, she says. Jennifer didn't know anyone at Saguaro who contracted HIV, or any other sexually transmitted diseases, but she did know a lot of people who were sexually active, including two girls who became pregnant in high school. One had the baby; the other had an abortion.

"I'm really worried about my brother," she says, hugging him. The boys laugh. "Yeah," they answer, they have classmates who are having sex. Heh heh. Heh heh. They sock each other in the arm and pull their caps down over their eyes. Jennifer rolls her own eyes, suppressing a smile.

"This is what scares me," she says. "Here they laugh about it and joke about it. Sex can be such a wonderful thing. But it will take [them] so long to learn about it."

When Jennifer was a teen, there was no such thing as sex education at Saguaro or the other three high schools in the Scottsdale Unified School District. But if all goes as scheduled, her friend Dave will begin instruction in sex education this month. After a year of rancorous community debate, the district's governing board voted unanimously in November to approve its first-ever high school sex-education curriculum.

Because of the efforts of a well-organized and vocal group with ties to televangelist Pat Robertson, however, the curriculum is a pale shadow of what was proposed. The sex-ed battle in Scottsdale stands as a vivid example of how well-financed national organizations such as Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which recently opened a branch office in Phoenix, are beginning to affect policy at the local level, countering groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Policy, which traditionally have held sway in the realm of sex education.

The Scottsdale school board wound up adopting a watered-down version of a curriculum named Reducing the Risk, which stresses abstinence but also offers some rather explicit instruction about contraception. In the vernacular of sex-ed academics, it's known as an "abstinence-but" program.

The debate triggered outbursts from both those who support Reducing the Risk and those who demanded an "abstinence-only" program. Hundreds of people showed up for public meetings.

Sex education isn't required by law in this state, although in 1989, the Arizona Board of Education approved guidelines that must be used if a district opts to offer such instruction. The Arizona State Legislature passed a law in 1991 mandating AIDS education, but because the mandate is unfunded, it will probably be done away with in the upcoming legislative session, according to legislators.

For many years, Scottsdale has had sex education for grades 6 through 8, but it hasn't prompted an outcry--partially because the curriculum deals almost exclusively with abstinence and partially because no one happened to notice when it came up for approval. Students cannot get the instruction without their parents' permission; only about 5 percent keep their kids out.

In high school, it's different. The original Reducing the Risk lessons called for the teacher to unwrap and display a condom, while giving instructions for its use. It also called for a trip to the drugstore to see where contraceptives are displayed, and a discussion about dental dams--latex barriers used to discourage disease transmission during oral sex. The condom demonstration, pharmacy field trip and dental-dam data all were exorcised from Scottsdale's final version, as were some references to homosexuality. Role-playing was toned down.

The sanitized version of Reducing the Risk includes instruction about pregnancy prevention and the dangers of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It attempts to develop communications skills that promote abstinence and encourage kids to refrain from unprotected sex. There is general information about contraceptives.

How significantly did the debate alter Reducing the Risk? The district's head nurse, Peg Straus, calls the changes "moderate," while the chief critic of Reducing the Risk crows that the curriculum has been "emasculated."

Mary Halter, a professional sex educator who wrote the district's curriculum for grades 6 through 8 and supported Reducing the Risk, leans toward the latter view. She says, "We've diluted it so it won't have any impact on the kids at all. The ones who are sexually active and need to know about using condoms, they're not going to get the right information. And the ones that aren't sexually active, it's not going to affect them one way or another."

The compromise pleases no one. For those who favor comprehensive sex education, Scottsdale's curriculum merely opens a can of worms. It tells kids to be safe, but doesn't definitively tell them how.

For those on the other side, nothing short of a mental chastity belt is satisfactory.

The abstinence-only crowd is convinced that Planned Parenthood is plotting the abstinence-but movement. And the abstinence-but people say the religious right is the driving force behind abstinence-only.

Both are correct, to some extent. And both the abstinence-but and abstinence-only groups--often with assistance from Planned Parenthood or religious-right organizations--have spent vast amounts of time and money attempting to discredit one another.

In Scottsdale, support for abstinence-but comes from many parents, some of whom have long been in the district's power structure (on committees, the school board), and a few administrators.

The abstinence-only group appears to be smaller but more cohesive. Less than a year old, it even has a name: Parents Who Care. Those who support abstinence-but took offense at the name, saying it implies that other parents don't care.

Mike Doyle--the communications director and chief rabble-rouser for Parents Who Care--responds, "A name is a name is a name. Is Planned Parenthood really what they say they are? Planned parenthood? Baloney. Initially, they were for no parenthood. And now they're for abortions."

Noisy groups like Parents Who Care make headway in battles like these because there is little hope of enlightened debate. Both sides have hurled so many statistics, it's literally possible to prove just about anything.

But most of the data springs from national studies. The Arizona Department of Education isn't even sure how many of the state's school districts offer high school sex ed. The department's best guess is something like five out of 225.

Facts about the Scottsdale teen-sex scene are even sketchier. There is no credible documentation as to how many Scottsdale teenagers are sexually active, and no credible effort to find out. Nor is such information available on the state level, although we do know Arizona has the sixth-highest teen-pregnancy rate in the nation.

When Carolyn Phillips spoke out against Mike Doyle and Parents Who Care, it was the American Center for Law and Justice, the public-interest law agency created by Pat Robertson, that responded.

In a September letter addressed to "Citizens of Scottsdale School District," Phillips, an advocate of comprehensive sex ed, wrote, "JUST WHO ARE 'PARENTS WHO CARE'? Are they members of our community? Parents of children in our public schools? Even citizens of our country? Do they represent all our community beliefs, or just those of a special interest group? Why would outsiders want to put forth such an effort to determine what Scottsdale students learn in our schools?"

Phillips' queries are clearly aimed at Mike Doyle, a recent transplant from Toronto, Canada.

Not long after she began asking questions about Parents Who Care, Phillips, mother of three, including a seventh grader at the Cocopah school, received a letter from Benjamin Bull, who is in charge of the ACLJ's new Phoenix office, demanding that she retract statements she had made about Doyle and Parents Who Care.

New Times has obtained a copy of Bull's letter, though it did not come from Phillips. The three-page letter concludes, "Please be advised that if the retraction is not made as specified above, or if these false statements are uttered or published by you in the future, I will advise my clients of their rights to proceed with legal remedies against you by means of a lawsuit for defamation and false light injury." Bull also writes that because Phillips identified herself as a member of a Cocopah school committee, the school district would be liable for her "torturous misconduct." Bull did not return phone calls from New Times.

After consulting with her personal attorney, Phillips decided not to retract her statements. But Bull's bellicose letter has certainly altered her thinking. She has been careful to address only the issues.

"I don't know what I have done to make these people mad, other than I'm the only one that has really called them for what I think they are," says Phillips.

". . . Women that I was friends with before now suddenly won't even speak to me. . . . All of the sudden, now I'm a sex maniac or something just because I want my kids to know the truth."

Mike Doyle admits that Bull serves as unofficial counsel to Parents Who Care, providing legal advice for free. Doyle says, "Whenever a contentious issue has come along, I've picked up the phone and I've called Ben and asked for his advice.

"We've asked him to look at the adoption of the [Reducing the Risk] program by the school board . . . to see if they in fact conform with the law, and I have not yet had a final decision from him. But if there is something that we think is illegal about what we feel they have done, we will bring it to the board's attention and hope they change it. If not, then we are prepared to do whatever has to be done to be sure the law is followed."

Peg Straus never thought she'd see such an outcry in the placid--albeit socially conservative--community of Scottsdale. Straus, the Scottsdale school district's head nurse, began to consider her high schools' sex-education needs in the fall of 1993.

The district could have offered a biology-based lesson regarding AIDS--all that's required by state law--but Straus, a registered nurse with a master's degree in community nursing, wanted to address behavior through sex education.

Her only data were amateur: a survey of freshmen at a Scottsdale high school conducted by a youth minister who had spoken to the students in November 1993. Almost 23 percent had indicated they were sexually active, a number just below the national average.

Straus invited what she thought was a representational group of parents, students and administrators to an open meeting to discuss formulation of a sex-education curriculum.

"Word kind of got out within certain communities that I was holding some kind of secret meeting. And that was absolutely not true," she says.

That's when Straus, who intended to be neutral, became a target. The first meeting was held in early December 1993, and shortly thereafter, a letter went out from Charlie Dunlap, a parent and one of the few who spoke out against the 6-through-8 sex-education curriculum when it was revised in 1989. Dunlap did not return phone calls from New Times.

His letter began, "Dear Friends: "The Scottsdale School District's Head Nurse has begun discussions which are designed for introduction of a complete 'sex education' curriculum at the high school level.

"To date all leadership in the creation of the district sex education curriculum has been provided by those favoring the 'planned parenthood' approach to sex ed." (Italics his.)

Interested parties were urged to attend Straus' second meeting and also to attend "a short, but important, meeting" to discuss alternatives.

The seeds of discontent were sowed, but it would take a charismatic Canadian to make them grow.

Enter Mike Doyle, who moved to Scottsdale in August 1993 from Toronto with his wife and son, then a freshman at Arcadia High School. Doyle says he moved specifically to place his son at Arcadia, because he'd heard such good things about the school.

"Everything was going swimmingly until I made the mistake of going to a meeting," Doyle says, laughing. Someone called last January and urged him to attend the third meeting on the sex-ed curriculum.

Doyle recalls that the meeting was confrontational when he arrived. Others say it grew more so after Doyle arrived.

"He just sauntered in like King Tut," one parent says. "He came in with his booming voice, he grabbed a podium and stood at the back of the room" and started screaming abstinence-only.

Doyle made a big impression. "The next day, my phone didn't stop ringing," he says. It rang for three days. First, about five families got together to strategize. By April, it had become Parents Who Care, with a steering committee of up to 30, a mailing list of more than 3,500 and, by summer, the financial capability to blanket Scottsdale with thousands of dollars worth of propaganda.

The immediate goal: to defeat Reducing the Risk.

It's easy to see why Mike Doyle makes an impact. He's a thick man with thick, black hair carefully combed and sprayed into submission. His radio-quality voice booms through the Doyles' small, immaculate apartment in southern Scottsdale as he sits with a cordless phone, a coffee cup and reading glasses--which he's constantly putting on and taking off--and recalls the events of the past year.

Doyle does not look like the zealot his foes might wish him to be. He wears sweats and a tee shirt, tennis shoes, a gold pinkie ring.

He works here, out of his home. He says he's a graphic artist, his wife a registered nurse. He's only recently received his working papers, he says. Doyle's not a U.S. citizen. Unable to work, he devoted the last few months to designing the brochures and mailings for Parents Who Care, writing op-eds for local newspapers and rallying the troops.

What does his son think of all of this? Don't ask.
Doyle doesn't believe students deserve a voice in the dialogue about sex education. Talking to kids "distorts the picture," he says. "I don't know that if the kids really had an understanding of this issue that we would have to be teaching them anything. . . . The fact of the matter is that at their stage of development, the only thing they can reflect to you is precisely that--that stage of their development."

Doyle will be happy to tell you what he thinks. Abstinence-only, all the way. As for head nurse Peg Straus, Doyle says, "I just don't think she should be in the position she's in given the philosophy she has. Anyone who thinks that the kids are not going to pass science shouldn't be the science teacher."

There's no reason Scottsdale kids shouldn't pass, Doyle says. Birth-control instruction and discussion are "completely unnecessary," because "there is no problem" in Scottsdale, he says.

Actually, "not as big a problem" would be a more accurate description. Doyle himself cites a 1993 statistic from the Maricopa County Department of Health and Community Services that shows 15 births per thousand to Scottsdale mothers age 10 to 19, compared with 51.2 births per thousand Phoenix mothers age 10 to 19. (County employees say this number has held steady for five years.)

For Doyle, those 15 per thousand teenage and preteenage mothers are few enough.

Mike Doyle is certain that Reducing the Risk is part of a larger, subversive agenda designed to undermine family values in America. Many of his allies--people like Phoenix Suns coach Paul Westphal and Westphal's wife, Cindy--concur.

The Westphals are not members of Parents Who Care, but they have a son in the district. Each of them wrote letters urging the Scottsdale board to reject Reducing the Risk as it was originally proposed. Cindy Westphal, who holds a master's degree in education, lambasted proponents of Reducing the Risk as "change agents" bent on creating a "one-world government." Doyle has a more specific culprit in mind. "I do believe that Planned Parenthood is behind it," Doyle says. He can't name any Planned Parenthood infiltrators, but every "tactic" employed by the abstinence-but crowd, he says, is "right out of the Planned Parenthood book on how to achieve your goals." Those goals, according to Doyle: "Get into the PTOs and the PTAs and get on the school council and push the agenda forward. And when anybody objects to it, you ridicule them."

He disappears into a bedroom, returning with a book titled Aborting Planned Parenthood, the back cover of which promises "documented proof of Planned Parenthood's systematic exploitation of teenagers and taxpayers."

Gloria Feldt, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona, acknowledges that her employees have followed the debate in Scottsdale. "Many people call upon us as a resource. That doesn't mean they represent us," she says.

Of people like Doyle, she adds, "They create Planned Parenthood as a devil and then they try to apply the devil concept to anybody who's supportive of sexuality education."

When he speaks of Planned Parenthood, Doyle sounds a lot like his opponents, who, rather than railing against Planned Parenthood or shadowy agents provocateurs, demonize the religious right.

Take Jann Renert and Sue Braga, for example. They met two years ago at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, which their kids attend. They discovered a mutual interest for countering dangerous religious philosophies they believe are infiltrating public schools.

Although a group named Mainstream Arizona had already been formed to address such concerns, Renert and Braga founded Arizona Citizens Project. It is not incorporated, nor does it have a formal membership; instead, it serves as a clearinghouse for information gathered from around the country.

On a sunny December day in northern Scottsdale, near Pinnacle Peak, Renert is in her home office talking on the phone with a bigwig at the Anti-Defamation League. Huge black binders packed with articles and studies line shelves.

Renert, who is Jewish, devotes her time to church-state issues. Braga, who was raised and educated as a Catholic, focuses on educational issues, such as the movement to create "back to basics" schools, which she sees as problematic, because religion is often involved. She calls religious conservatives "wingers," as in right wingers, and uses phrases like "Biblically correct" with a hint of sarcasm. Renert sat on the sex-education task force that recommended Reducing the Risk. During the months of debate, she was called names like "agnostic, antichrist, atheist," she says. But it wasn't so terrible. In fact, she says, the name-calling galvanized the abstinence-but crowd.

Just as Doyle is correct in assuming that Planned Parenthood is "behind" the abstinence-but movement, so are Renert and Braga when they say that religion drives the abstinence-only debate.

On the other side of the Fashion Square fountain from Jennifer, Jon and Dave, another girl, Carol, is also taking a break from Christmas shopping. Carol's a junior at Horizon High School, but unlike the others--indeed, unlike many Scottsdale teens whom New Times contacted--she knows all about the sex-ed battle; she even knows Reducing the Risk by name.

She learned about it at a youth-group meeting at Scottsdale Bible Church. At the urging of church leaders, Carol attended one of the public meetings in Scottsdale. She thinks parents, not teachers, should teach kids about sex. But because some kids don't have parents to talk to them, Carol thinks there should be a sex-ed program in the schools. She strongly supports an abstinence-only curriculum. Besides, she adds, "Reducing the Risk talks about alternative lifestyles that not everybody is happy with." Like homosexuality.

So is Parents Who Care aligned with the religious right?
Ralph Horlacher, executive director of Parents Who Care, says he's lived in Scottsdale for 20 years and was never called a religious wacko until he joined Parents Who Care. Doyle says, "I don't even go to church, so the religious-right thing is really a crock, all right?"

Doyle concedes that he encouraged Scottsdale Bible Church and a dozen others to tell their members about the sex-ed debate. "To say the churches are behind us--I wish it was true. I wish we could get them more behind us. We have a special committee who do nothing but that, work with the various pastors to try to get them to energize their flock, if you like, to speak out."

Corwin Ellsworth, a former Scottsdale school district principal, heads that committee.

Some of the detractors of Reducing the Risk send a mixed message--they don't belong to the religious right, they say, but they wouldn't mind seeing religion in school. Patti Badenoch was one of two members of the sex-education task force who voted against Reducing the Risk. She thought it made contraception too appealing. She's not a member of Parents Who Care, although she believes Reducing the Risk was "railroaded" through. And she did provide information for Doyle and Charlie Dunlap.

She isn't worried about the influence of the religious right, although, like Doyle, she doesn't attend church. But, she says, "I wouldn't mind having prayer in school. Our country was founded on a Judeo-Christian philosophy."

Badenoch likes the sex-education approach used by Crisis Pregnancy Center, a counseling program, because, she says, it deals with the emotional side of sex. Crisis Pregnancy Center's literature includes phrases like this one, directed at a girl who has had an abortion: "Pray and let Jesus know you have accepted Him and what has happened and that you know you are truly sorry. . . ."

Mike Doyle and his cohorts appear to be caught in a bind: They know that affiliating themselves with the religious right has stigmatized them, and yet such affiliations bring well-financed and organized support. And free legal representation.

The development that worries Renert and Braga the most is the emergence of the American Center for Law and Justice in the Scottsdale sex-ed debate.

Pat Robertson, who founded the Christian Coalition in 1989, founded the ACLJ in 1991. His goal is to educate Christians about the political process and, with the ACLJ, counter the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLJ reportedly has a budget of $10 million, funded primarily through Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

In the past few years, agencies like the ACLJ have been successful in getting prayer back into schools, winning the right of student religious groups to meet on campus and obtaining financial aid for certain students at religious schools.

Headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, ACLJ now has offices in Washington, D.C.; Georgia; Alabama; Kentucky; and Ontario, Canada. Its Western regional office opened in north Phoenix in 1993. One of the lawyers based in Phoenix, Benjamin Bull, had previously served as general counsel for Donald Wildmon's American Family Association Law Center in Tupelo, Mississippi. In the late 1980s, Bull worked for Charles H Keating Jr.'s antipornography group, Citizens for Decency Through Law.

Earlier this year, Bull failed in his attempt to overturn federal law protecting access to abortion clinics. But he has represented a number of students, including one who engaged Bull's free services after being told she couldn't form an antiabortion club at Lake Havasu City High School. Once the lawsuit was filed, the school immediately backed off.

That's apparently ACLJ's modus operandi, according to a recent article in National Journal: "Critics of the ACLJ also accuse the group of intimidating its opponents by threatening costly litigation. Indeed, the group's own press releases underline its tough-guy image by promising that legal 'SWAT teams' will pounce on recalcitrant school boards and other foes."

When a Scottsdale elementary school principal confiscated Halloween party invitations being handed out by students at school because the party was to be held at a church, the students' parent, Don Dillon, wrote to school board members, ". . . . it will be my assumption that in the future there will be no more incidents like the one I mentioned at the beginning of this letter since 'school policy' is FAR and AWAY outweighed by CONSTITUTIONAL LAW. The ACLJ handles cases of religious harassment or discrimination FREE OF CHARGE. We're all college graduates--I don't think I need say any more." The letter was carbon-copied to the ACLJ in Virginia Beach and in Phoenix.

So far, Parents Who Care members have been moderately active in politics, opting not to run for school board but instead working on the campaigns of Governor Fife Symington, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham, U.S. Representative John Shadegg and state Representative Tom Smith, who has attended their meetings, Doyle says. The group is in the process of conducting a public-opinion poll to see what the community wants. (A poll conducted in Tempe, before that city's high school district began rewriting its policy on sex ed, revealed that about 70 percent of those asked favored teaching about contraception in schools.)

Originally, Doyle says, Parents Who Care was intended to be a temporary consortium. Now it's in the process of obtaining tax-exempt status. This month, its breakfast meetings will be opened to the public. Doyle is compiling a library; in December, he put a notice on America Online looking for assistance in starting a national computer data base. Doyle says he's been in touch with people who share his concerns in New York, Los Angeles and Oregon. His phone bills are enormous. "We are not alone. This is happening in community after community after community." Doyle and other members of his organization are in the process of reviewing Scottsdale's 6-through-8 curriculum; they may ask for revisions. They will continue to push for an alternative abstinence-only program for the high school level. And then Parents Who Care intends to address issues far beyond sex education. Doyle strongly supports vouchers. He says, "Because we have not been, I guess, as mindful of what's been going on in the education field with the NEA [National Education Association] and that whole unionism crap that goes on, the whole educational community has moved considerably away from the community values of America."

Mike Doyle intends to do something about it.

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