Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Brunswick joins the book review fray, school board also reviewing sex ed

Brunswick County school board members discussing sex education curriculum on Oct. 24, 2023.

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Members of the Brunswick County Board of Education have directed staff to reevaluate several processes regarding recent hot-button issues.

READ MORE: Brunswick schools address EC teacher assistant shortage, consider reducing bus driving requirement

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board approved a new slate of district review committee members. The committee makes the final decision on challenges to instructional materials after a parent has appealed a school-level decision; a new committee makeup is approved annually. 

Per policy, the committee must include, from each school level, one parent, one teacher, one school media coordinator and one site-based administrator. The committee also has one certified staff member or designee from the district media office, two certified staff members from the district instructional office, and one senior high school student. 

However, that structure could change after board member Steve Gainey questioned the group’s “balance” of stakeholders at the Oct. 24 curriculum committee meeting. 

Gainey said he was worried the committee did not have enough “nonprofessional educators” — parents, community members — in its ranks.

“So much now seems to be revolving around, sort of, this idea of community standards and what was not appropriate from a standards viewpoint when it comes to materials in schools,” Gainey said. 

The tri-county region has faced its fair share of predicaments regarding objections to instructional materials, mainly books, which reflects a national trend marked by record high book bans. 

New Hanover County Schools’ only parental challenge resulted in the temporary removal of Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” from an AP English curriculum in September. The district also has faced frequent demands to examine other titles from not only classrooms but school libraries. 

Pender County Schools removed eight books from its shelves in May following prompts from conservative community activists. 

Both districts follow a similar process for book challenges. 

Brunswick County’s last book challenge was in 2015 over Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” though the board voted against banning it.

Any changes to Brunswick County’s process or committee makeup would need a policy change. 

Gainey clarified that was not what he was asking for at this point, but thought the board should discuss it at a later date; all board members agreed. Robin Moffitt said she would even like to see more high school students added to the committee. 

Policy 3205 will be reviewed at the next curriculum committee meeting on Dec. 12.  

Gainey also spearheaded a conversation on the district’s sex education curriculum. 

“I don’t really think that that curriculum satisfies the general statute that sets forth the objectives for this course of study,” Gainey said during the meeting.

The county used the curriculum Making Proud Choices! An Evidence-Based, Safer-Sex Approach to Teen Pregnancy and HIV/STD Prevention. On its website, the program boasts eight modules providing students “knowledge, confidence and skills necessary to reduce their risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STIs), HIV and pregnancy by abstaining from sex or using condoms if they choose to have sex.”

In Gainey’s view, the program does not put enough of an emphasis on abstinence to satisfy state statute, claiming the course treats the topic as an “aside.”

“‘Well, you know, the best way to prevent diseases is abstinence, however’ and then it goes into this small piece about the practical ways,” Gainey said, referring to how he understood the curriculum’s approach to abstinence. “There’s nothing specific, no modules dedicated to promoting the idea of abstinence.” 

According to state law, districts must “teach that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children,” along with “a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means” of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.” 

The Making Proud Choices! website reports its curriculum teaches that abstinence is the best way to prevent pregnancy and STIs, but also if students choose to have sex, they must use a condom. 

The program has four major components, one focusing on goals, dreams and adolescent sexuality. The second is knowledge, covering information about the etiology, transmission and prevention of HIV, other STIs and teenage pregnancy, followed by beliefs and attitudes. Lastly, it addresses developing skills in self-efficacy, consent and condom-use.

Superintendent Dale Cole explained the program does not match North Carolina standards completely; curriculum development companies are not inclined to tailor their material for every state. However, teachers are still responsible for teaching the standards, even if they have to use additional materials to do so.

Gainey also took issue with the “tone” of the curriculum, describing it as crass, callous and too graphic.

Though Gainey didn’t elaborate at the meeting on what content he considered inappropriate, state law requires instructors to provide accurate biological or pathological information on the human reproductive system. 

Cole also vouched for the county’s efforts in sex education, noting that 10 years ago, before the implementation of the current curriculum, teen pregnancy statistics were “quite a bit higher.” In 2015, more than 36 girls per thousand, aged 15 to 19, reported pregnancies in Brunswick County, higher than the state and national averages. It now sits around 25, though that number is still higher than the state and national averages, 20.8 and 19.3 respectively.  

“I think if we start seeing a trend back in that direction, we should just be aware of that,” Cole said. “Maybe [the decrease] is a change in culture. I don’t know. But it also could be as a result of just better education.”

Gainey’s request was to direct staff review the sex education program in comparison to the state standards by March 1, 2024; his fellow board members agreed. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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