High school student files human rights complaint over abstinence-only sex ed course

Updated: How a teen's legal action stopped a "slut-shaming" sex ed course from being taught in public schools

Published July 14, 2014 3:40PM (EDT)

                       (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=439113'>RonTech2000</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
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UPDATE: Thanks to Emily Dawson's complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, the superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools has announced that the Pregnancy Care Centre will no longer teach sex ed classes in the district, urging schools to find new, non-religious-based educators for the upcoming academic year. In a Facebook post, Superintendent Darrel Robertson said the district would be reviewing its health and wellness guidelines in the fall.

"Our expectation is that sexual health education is covered in the CALM curriculum in a scientifically-sound manner, and in a classroom that's inclusive, respectful of individual difference and without religious bias," Robertson wrote. "We want our students to feel free to ask questions without fear of shame or discrimination. We want them to have all the knowledge they need to make healthy personal choices and decisions. That is, and always will be, our goal."


In addition to being considered inaccurate and ineffective, abstinence-only sex education might also be considered a violation of basic human rights. A Canadian teen and her mother have filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission over a high school sex education course that the student was required to take, which she claims promoted an abstinence-only message replete with evangelical religious sentiment.

Last year, Emily Dawson, now 18, participated in a two-day in-school seminar ostensibly devoted to sex ed, run by a third-party group that the Edmonton Public School Board hired. The group, Canada-based Pregnancy Care Centre, has been linked to the American anti-choice network Care-Net. According to Dawson, the course -- which was a required component of her curriculum -- reflected the organizations' values, but not sound science. The teen said the course instructor included shocking material that flew in the face of accepted medical research on sex and sexuality, and, to top things off, promoted harmful stereotypes about gender roles and appropriate sexual behavior.

"She did a lot of slut-shaming to the women, and pointed out the guys as horn-dogs,” Dawson told the Edmonton Journal. “She really ridiculed single-parent families, she made it sound like they all give birth to juvenile delinquents.” Additionally, the teen said, questions about same-sex relationships were disregarded entirely. "All those questions were shut down right away. [The instructor] just said, ‘We’re not here to discuss that.’"

Dawson's mother, Kathy, attempted to pull her daughter from the course after the first day, but was told that the seminar was absolutely mandatory. So, instead of removing her daughter from the class, Kathy joined her -- and she was equally appalled by what she heard about single-parent households like her own. “It’s not something that you hear every day where you’re getting bashed for being in a single-parent home," Kathy Dawson told the CBC. She said the instructor characterized children of single parents as being "prone to depression, suicide, juvenile delinquency."

After attempting to petition the school board to change the course, the Dawsons opted to file a legal complaint. They claim that the Pregnancy Care Centre's evangelical message violated Emily Dawson's religious rights as a non-believer, and that it violated Kathy Dawson's parental rights by failing to inform her of the course's controversial material. According to the complaint, which the commission agreed to review this week, the Dawsons also took issue with several other unsubstantiated claims the instructor included, likely in order to scare students into chastity. The Edmonton Journal reports:

The Dawsons’ complaints allege the presenter taught students that 60 per cent of boys carry the HPV sexually transmitted infection under their fingernails, that gonorrhea can kill you in three days, that girls should dress modestly to avoid inflaming boys. The allegations have not been proven.

The school board has also agreed to review the complaint, though it has yet to move forward in changing the curriculum.


By Jenny Kutner

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