Sex-Education Battles Calm Down Locally But Heat Up Statewide

In the end, Planned Parenthood was just too sexy for Knox County Schools.

On the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 25, with zero fanfare, the school district uploaded to its website a memorandum from Superintendent James McIntyre as an attachment to the agenda for the Board of Education's next work session. The three-page letter announced that, effective immediately, no outside organizations would be allowed to teach sex education in Knox County schools, with the exception of any presentations already scheduled for this semester.

McIntyre writes, "[G]iven the sensitive nature of the material covered in the human sexuality components of the state-mandated middle and high school health and wellness curriculum, I believe it is in the best interest of our students for us to explore the feasibility of using only Knox County Schools staff and Knox County Health Department personnel to deliver this important and delicate curricular material."

The decision to remove both Planned Parenthood and the pro-abstinence Let's Talk 101 (formerly Just Wait) comes just days before a planned protest at the Board of Education's March 2 meeting, stemming from the controversy that has arisen since last fall, when a Hardin Valley Academy teacher forget to send home parental opt-out forms before a Planned Parenthood representative taught classes as part of the state's mandated family life curriculum.

But as Monday's Board of Education work session demonstrated, the battle to keep Planned Parenthood out of Knox County Schools isn't over. District Three Board member Cindy Buttry grilled McIntryre after his announcement.

"I'm thrilled with your recommendation as far as removing Planned Parenthood from the school system, but can you tell me, is anyone on staff paid to attend any conference that Planned Parenthood might be presenting at?" Buttry asked.

"I'm not sure I can answer that question accurately," McIntyre responded. He said it was entirely possible that Knox County School staff might attend some conference at some point at which Planned Parenthood was also present.

Buttry's question is a point that is going to be raised again. The parents who instigated the original controversy are now loosely organized via two Facebook groups. One parent, Doug Harris, recently posted the following in No Planned Parenthood - Knox County Schools:

"As we learn more about the involvement of Planned Parenthood in our Knox County schools, we have become increasingly concerned about the relationship that may have been forged with our school district personnel and school staffs and educators as well as with those in the health and social services through various training events, conferences and meetings sponsored by Planned Parenthood. ... The type of ongoing professional formation our school administration and teachers receive should be an indicator to parents of what perspectives are likely to be passed on to our children. We want policy to insure that Knox County School monies DO NOT pay for this training!"

Planned Parenthood also has a number of teen peer educators who are students in Knox County high schools; NPP-KCS wants to somehow prevent them from doing anything in the schools.

In another twist, there is also now legislation to change the state's sex education curriculum, sponsored by Knoxville's own Rep. Bill Dunn. HB 1352/SB 1305 would implement "an integrated sex education program in place of the family life curriculum and authorizes parents to maintain an action against an outside instructor or organization for teaching students about material prohibited by the curriculum guidelines." The bill defines integrated sex education as "a comprehensive, abstinence-centered educational program that equips students with factually and medically accurate information, presents students with the health, economic and societal benefits of refraining from non-marital sexual activity, and encourages students to engage in self-regulation, goal-setting, and future orientation." It also specifically prevents a curriculum that would "[p]romote, implicitly or explicitly, any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to consider sexual activity that remains within the technical definition of abstinence."

"Gateway sexual activity" is defined as "a sexual activity that increases the likelihood of an individual engaging in or that makes it difficult for an individual to avoid progression toward sexual intercourse"; what that means in reality is up for grabs. Kissing? Holding hands? Possibly a problematic definition, as the legislation also specifically allows parents to sue teachers for promoting "gateway sexual activity." (Although it does limit the damages to $500.)

Whether or not this bill passes, it seems like the debate over Planned Parenthood, sex education, and schools is likely to continue for a while longer. Both NPP-KCS and a group opposed to them, Sane Parents of Knox County, say they still plan to show up at the board's March 2 meeting in droves.