By Amy Littlefield
Monday, December 24, 2007
Heritage of Rhode Island stirred political and legal controversy over its abstinence-only sex-ed curricula from the get-go in 2004. This year a "limited market" caused it to close its doors so quietly that opponents didn't realize the battle was over.
WARWICK, R.I. (WOMENSENEWS)--Off the main drag of this town of 85,000 on the outskirts of Providence, the former headquarters of an abstinence-only education program is now vacant. Heritage ran programs in three public and two private Rhode Island schools from 2004 to 2007 and received over $1 million in federal funding.
Richard Clarkson, principal of the West Bay Christian Academy in North Kingstown, which hosted Heritage of Rhode Island's Right Time, Right Place program at their middle school from 2004 through last school year, says the school had counted on having Heritage back this year.
Instead they have had to make new plans and are delaying the start of abstinence education for the students by a few months.
That's because Heritage of Rhode Island quietly ended an episodic legal battle over the place of abstinence-only education in the state by closing shop and leaving this fall with almost no one noticing, not even its biggest opponent, the Rhode Island ACLU.
"They're gone?" Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, said last week. "No, I did not know about it."
"I think the federal government had the right idea not funding it for another year," Brown added. "We had raised concerns for some time about the inaccuracies and having abstinence-only in the schools."
Heritage of Rhode Island has received training and support from Heritage Community Services of North Charleston, S.C., an abstinence-only curriculum producer that receives approximately $3 million in federal and state funds annually. That organization's Web site says the curriculum reaches more than 20,000 teens yearly in South Carolina, Georgia, Maine, Rhode Island, Kentucky and the Caribbean.
Along with Planned Parenthood and a coalition of local educators, parents and doctors, the ACLU has fought for three years to get Heritage out of Rhode Island schools.
Rhode Island is one of 14 states that have refused federal money for abstinence-only education under Title V.
But unlike Title V funds, which are matched and apportioned by the state, federal funds allocated under the heading "Community Based Abstinence Education" go directly to suppliers such as Heritage, which received $400,260 a year between 2004 and 2007 from a Community Based Abstinence Education grant issued by the Administration of Children and Families.
Amid growing controversy about abstinence-only curricula, Congress has steadily increased funding for Community Based Abstinence Education since 2001, appropriating $113 million in 2007.
Brown says organizations like Heritage of Rhode Island depend on federal grants. "Without the funding they'd have virtually nothing," he says.
Chris Plante, Heritage of Rhode Island's former executive director, says he was disappointed but not surprised when Heritage's request for a new grant beginning in October 2007 was rejected.
He says Rhode Island was a "limited market." The Heritage program reached about 1,700 students in five schools between 2004 and this past June.
Plante says one principal told him: "I don't want to see my name in the paper."
Some educators, however, were happy with the group.
Vincent Mancuso, principal of Bishop Hendricken, a Catholic all-male prep school in Warwick, says the curriculum was in line with the Catholic perspective on abstinence and they only stopped using the program when they realized they could teach "basically the same thing" without Heritage.
Angel Sweeney runs an after-school enrichment program for Providence students in the fifth through seventh grades called the North End Community Learning Collaborative. "It gave the children different insights into pressures they might be facing," she says, adding that the program focused on "being safe" and "making the right choices" when it came to issues like smoking, sex and gangs.
Heritage Community Services, from whom Heritage of Rhode Island purchased curricular materials and received training, has faced accusations of abusing state and federal money.
In 2006, a former Heritage employee disclosed to the press that the organization paid $11,000 to send two state employees to a conference in California put on by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a conservative and controversial abstinence-only group. She also said program leaders wrote letters in support of Republican candidates "on Heritage time using Heritage equipment," which she said was an abuse of public funding.
Plante says Heritage of Rhode Island was founded in 2002 by a group of Rhode Island parents, educators and faith leaders who secured federal funding in 2004.
The fight against it began that same year, when a Pawtucket mother, Tracey Ross, read a Heritage textbook that her son brought home from Tolman High School. Her son also reported taking a survey about his sexual behavior.
Ross thought something was "not right" and she called the ACLU, who wrote to Education Commissioner Peter McWalters, charging that the curriculum "invaded students' privacy rights, promoted sexist stereotypes, isolated gay and lesbian students, and did not appear to comport with the state's comprehensive sex education standards."
Brown, of the ACLU, highlighted the curriculum's characterization of men as "strong" and "protective" and women as "caring," and the idea that "girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn't invite lustful thoughts."
Ross was particularly concerned that Heritage taught that the children of single parents appeared "destined to a life of hell." She notes that Tolman High School, a public school in a city of about 73,000, runs a nursery for the children of teen parents.
In March 2006, six months after Steve Brown's first letter, and two years after Tracey Ross' initial complaint, McWalters issued a statement that the Heritage curriculum failed to meet state standards and should not be taught in schools. The decision drew applause from abstinence-only education supporters. Tracey Ross says she did a dance in the street.
Eight months later, however, McWalters reversed his decision.
In a letter to Plante, he praised "the extensive developmental work" that Heritage had done to revise their curriculum.
Educators, however, remained wary of the curriculum and Heritage began putting its money, instead, into an aggressive media campaign with billboards, bus signs and several radio and television ads that ran locally and on major stations such as MTV.
Almost all of the ads were designed by public school students at the Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center, after Plante pitched the project to Susan Votto, current assistant principal and former new media teacher.
Votto says she instructed her students to view Heritage strictly as a client and ignore any of the related politics.
Eleventh-grader Adam Badeau says the research he did for a billboard he created changed his own sexual behavior.
"I think back to the billboard when I'm put on the spot," he says.
When asked if he remains abstinent, Badeau says, "Not all of the time."
Amy Littlefield is a junior at Brown University. She is concentrating in comparative literature with a particular interest in journalism.
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