During a week when the national media topic of the moment was sexy teen sex on MTV, it seemed oddly apropos that the latest controversy in the Knox County schools would revolve around teen sex—although how much of a controversy it is depends on to whom you speak.
What definitely did happen is this: Last fall, a teacher at Hardin Valley Academy forgot to send home parental notification letters before a Planned Parenthood educator gave a presentation as part of the state's required Lifetime Wellness curriculum. Sophomore Alaynna McCormick was disturbed by the information she learned during this presentation. She told her mother, Kym, about it. Since early October, Kym McCormick has been on the warpath to get Planned Parenthood banned from the schools, and her movement seems to have recently picked up traction—the Catholic Church's Diocese of Knoxville is hosting a meeting this Thursday to organize and rally concerned parents.
Paul Simoneau, the diocese's director of the Justice and Peace Office, says the effort isn't about the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control or abortion.
"The kids need to be educated on STDs, they need to be educated on the consequences of sex. But we feel like this is not an organization that should be allowed anywhere near our children," Simoneau says. He points to what he calls the "extremely graphic" material on Planned Parenthood's website that is directed specifically at teenagers.
"It's not about sex prevention, it's about sex promotion," he says.
Ginny Winters begs to differ.
"We are absolutely not promoting sex," she says. Winters is a community health educator for Planned Parenthood's Knoxville office, and she was the person who taught the class that upset Alaynna McCormick. She says there is a set of five classes she offers to high schools: HIV and AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, reproductive anatomy, healthy relationships, and pregnancy prevention. The curriculum of each has been approved by the Knox County school system, but it's up to each high school to decide whether to invite Planned Parenthood into the classroom. (Some use their own instructors, and some invite Let's Talk 101, a more abstinence-focused organization.)
At Hardin Valley, Winters taught only the anatomy, HIV, and relationship classes; she says it was the first one that threw the McCormicks in a tizzy.
"When we talk about reproductive anatomy, we talk about the menstrual cycle, and we talk about how long sperm can live inside a woman's body, which is up to seven days," Winters says. "And so there really is no safe time of the month to have unprotected sex, especially given teenagers' changing bodies. It's my understanding that the parent was upset because her daughter came home upset that she wouldn't be able to use natural family planning."
The McCormicks are Catholic; Alaynna's Facebook page indicates she is one of eight children. (Kym McCormick declined repeated interview requests; via Simoneau she said she was overwhelmed by the media attention and concerned about Metro Pulse's liberal reputation.)
Despite Simoneau's insistence that "this is not a debate about theology," the heart of the debate does not seem to rest just in Planned Parenthood's website, which does indeed explicitly discuss things like masturbation and anal sex—but also answers such innocent questions as, "How can I tell if the person I have a crush on likes me back?" (Answer: "The only way to know for sure is to ask!") No, the heart of the matter seems to lie in the fact that Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest abortion provider, which is why flyers advocating the ban are being distributed by the Pro-Life Coalition of East Tennessee. (The flyers are replete with salacious excerpts from Planned Parenthood's teen site and TakeCareDownThere.org, another site run by the organization.)
Simoneau says having Planned Parenthood teach sex ed in public schools is doing nothing but "legitimizing its largest income source."
Winters, however, says she never even mentions abortion in her presentations. She will mention that it is an option if she is asked by a student—something she says has just happened once in two years of classes. "We are the agency that is doing the most to prevent unplanned pregnancy," Winters says.
And unplanned pregnancy is a big issue in Tennessee. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee was tied with Kentucky for the fifth-highest teenage birth rate in the country in 2008. And while the pregnancy rate has fallen in the past decade, Knox County's rate remains very close to the state as a whole: 12.3 pregnancies per 1,000 females aged 10-17 in 2008, compared to the state's 13.6 rate.
It's that high teen pregnancy rate that prompted the state to mandate a sexual education curriculum to begin with. The law states, "Any such course in sex education shall, in addition to teaching facts concerning human reproduction, hygiene and health concerns, include presentations encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse during the teen and pre-teen years."
In Tennessee, sex education is just one of seven parts of the mandated Lifetime Wellness curriculum for high schoolers. (Other sections tackle things like nutrition, first aid, and substance abuse.) The state curriculum requires students to "recognize abstinence from all sexual activity as a positive choice" but also to "compare various contraceptive methods" and "discuss the alternatives of an unplanned pregnancy (e.g., adoption, single parenting, marriage, abortion)." You read that correctly—the state of Tennessee's Department of Education says that its students should learn that abortion is one way to deal with unplanned pregnancy.
Which is why Knox County Schools spokesperson Melissa Copelan says the whole controversy is a state issue.
"The family life curriculum is mandated by the state," she says.
Laura Boring, the schools' supervisor for health education, says she reviewed Planned Parenthood's presentation for approval and found it "medically accurate and it aligns with the state-mandated curriculum. They do not pass out Planned Parenthood materials in this presentation."
Boring also notes she has had just four phone calls from concerned parents. And a number of parents say they are glad Planned Parenthood is in the schools, like Deanna Maxwell, whose 17-year-old daughter is a senior at Bearden High School.
"Let's face it—a lot of teens aren't comfortable talking to their parents about sex," Maxwell says. "So a lot of misinformation becomes the basis for actions." Her daughter, Christin, actually works as a teen educator for Planned Parenthood. Christin says it was the pregnancy of three of her classmates last year, a full year after their Lifetime Wellness instruction, that spurred her involvement.
"I asked [one of the girls] about it, and she told me, ‘I didn't know, I didn't know how not to get pregnant,'" Christin says. Tears start running down her cheek as she describes her friend having to drop out of school, and soon she's almost sobbing. "I don't see why anyone should be deprived that information. I know I've saved lives!"
According to the most recent data from the Knox County Health Department, almost 45 percent of high school students reported they had had sex in 2009, just below the national average of 46 percent. Of those students, 12 percent reported using no method of birth control at all. Christin says her involvement in Planned Parenthood has actually kept her from being sexually active.
"It's scared me out of it!" she says.
The "No Planned Parenthood-Knox County Schools" Facebook group has only 30 members, two of whom are Alaynna and Kym McCormick, but Simoneau said he expects a crowd of at least 100 for Thursday's meeting. The meeting is currently scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the Sacred Heart High School gymnasium, although that location was subject to change at press time.