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WBEZ

The administration at Chicago’s Francis Parker School and many parents are strongly defending the school’s comprehensive sex ed curriculum, including presenting sex toys to a small group of high schoolers. But other parents say it’s inappropriate.

Do sex toys belong in ‘comprehensive sex education’ for high school students?

After a secretly-recorded video discussing a queer sex ed lesson at Chicago’s Francis Parker School was widely circulated last week, subjecting the school to a torrent of online harassment, school leaders strongly defended its “LGBTQ+ affirming and comprehensive approach” to sexual education.

But the one-time session, which included showing high school students dildos and butt plugs, is raising questions both inside and outside of Parker about the school’s approach to sexual education.

The video was covertly recorded by an operative of the far-right group Project Veritas who Parker said presented himself as an attendee at an education conference. It shows the Parker dean of student life discussing the sex toy portion of the optional lesson for high schoolers and his strong support for it. New York-based Project Veritas is known for edited undercover videos intended to discredit progressive groups and media outlets.

In an email to the school community this week, Parker’s principal said just six students, mostly seniors, attended the 30 minute one-time session presented by an outside LGBTQ+ health group, and that school adults were present.

“The health care practitioners presented information and materials related to safe sex practices which were designed to combat misinformation on the internet,” the email said. “The experts provided information in a clear and respectful manner aimed to meet the specific needs of our Upper School LGBTQ+ students.”

What is comprehensive sex ed?

Parker, a private school, is not alone in offering a comprehensive sex-education curriculum that includes discussion of current issues such as consent, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, as well as more traditional instruction in reproductive biology, puberty, contraception and sexual health. Parker says its curriculum supports students in forming “healthy and respectful relationships.”

Parker’s approach mirrors what’s in a 2021 state law that mandates how sex education must be taught in public schools. Sex ed isn’t required in Illinois, but any public school district that offers it must adopt a “comprehensive sexual health education” curriculum. Illinois’ new requirements, which generated controversy when passed by state lawmakers last year, are based on a national set of standards for sex education in classrooms published in 2020 by a group called the Future of Sex Education. Eva Goldfarb, a professor of public health at Montclair State University in New Jersey, co-authored the standards with other academics and teachers.

Goldfarb said to be considered comprehensive sex ed under the national standards, a curriculum must include the broad range of topics required in Illinois, including discussion of LGBTQ identities. She said as children get older, lessons become more closely related to sex and sexuality. According to the national standards, students learn about puberty, sex and contraception in grades 6-8. High schoolers continue these lessons and add discussions about signs of unhealthy relationships and inaccurate media representation of sex and romance.

Goldfarb and colleague Lisa Lieberman looked at 30 years of studies involving school sex ed curricula around the world. They found that schools whose curriculums met the Future of Sex Education’s standards saw less homophobic bullying, more acceptance of gender nonconformity and fewer students who were victims of intimate partner violence.

Chicago Public Schools is one district that has created a comprehensive sex ed curriculum. The standards include “defining sex assigned at birth, gender identity, and sexual orientation” as one of the “appropriate topics and skills” to be covered between third and fifth grades. For high schoolers, CPS says topics should include “deepening understanding of sex assigned at birth, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”

Parker parents weigh in

But is a lesson in which students pass around sex toys ever appropriate in a school setting? That is what’s generating the most outrage about the Parker video, even as the context of the conversation was edited out.

In the email to parents this week, Parker described its “age-appropriate sex education program,” which begins in fourth grade and runs intermittently through high school. “Like many other schools,” the email continues, Parker “supports the emerging needs and experiences of our LGBTQ+ Upper School students by providing additional mini-workshops during Pride Week.”

Several Parker parents told WBEZ they supported the school’s comprehensive approach, including the optional high school lesson that included sex toys.

Stacia Garriott Kass has three children, two current Parker students and one alum. She supports the school’s stance, saying that for her, the issue is personal — her youngest son is gay. “Sex education in a more heteronormative way doesn’t really apply to my kid,” she said. “I would feel so much more comfortable with him learning about safe sex practices,” including with sex toys.

She noted that Joe Bruno, Parker’s dean of student life who appears in the Project Veritas video, is beloved at Parker and dedicated to the school. “He’s able to sort of bring everyone together,“ she said, noting that students chose him as their graduation speaker in 2020. “He’s everybody’s ear and shoulder.”

Parker alumni also have expressed support. As of Friday, more than 100 graduates dating back multiple decades had signed an on-line letter of support for the school, faculty and students and denouncing “extremist anti-LGBTQ+ attacks against our alma mater.” One grad, Elias Cepeda, a writer and boxing coach, tweeted, “I’ve rarely been as proud of my school as I am, now, seeing them teach 1. sex ed, 2. sex ed that doesn’t assume heterosexuality, and 3. seeing that they are showing kids from a young age that queerness is nothing to be ashamed of.”

But other parents, who did not want to be quoted, told WBEZ they don’t think sex toys in the high school are appropriate and are upset Parker hasn’t publicly acknowledged that some parents see it as an issue. One parent said several families they know consider Bruno’s behavior and the school’s response to it disrespectful to the school community.

A parent of two Parker alumni spoke out in a blog post and was interviewed by WBEZ. Jeffrey Carter believes objects like sex toys and condoms shouldn’t be in schools. He says teachers can talk about them, but students should only see them at home, at the parent’s discretion.

“This isn’t show and tell,” said Carter, a self-described “pro-life and free-market capitalist” who explained his conservative take on this topic.

In his post, Carter urged left-leaning parents at the progressive school to imagine a different perspective.

“Suppose those weren’t dildos,” Carter wrote. “Suppose Mr. Bruno was someone from the NRA and they were guns. The feeling that is creeping into your gut and that hot rush of anger that is making your blood boil is the same feeling a lot of parents get when they hear kids are being educated by a gay man about sex toys,” he wrote.

“For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t support that either. It has nothing to do with Mr. Bruno. It has everything to do with the subject matter. I wouldn’t want Mother Teresa or Hugh Hefner teaching my kids about that subject either.”

Carter said he’s heard from current Parker parents who worry they will be ostracized by the school community if they speak out about their conservative views. “Your kids maybe don’t get invited to parties,” he said. “[You] lose out on business opportunities.”



WBEZ

A police car was stationed outside Parker School this week after a bomb threat.

Another likely reason behind the silence from critics in the Parker community is concern about fueling further harassment of the school. In addition to attacks on social media, a bomb threat forced the school to evacuate on Monday. Police could not say whether the threat referenced the viral video.

The video, shot at a conference focused on people of color, has been viewed more than 5.4 million times on Twitter and was picked up by right-wing media including Fox News. The social media hashtag #ExposeGroomers trended last week on Twitter, continuing the trend of right-wing groups falsely attacking sexual health educators and queer-identifying people as pedophiles.

The video made by Project Veritas has been promoted by both the local Proud Boys chapter and Awake Illinois, a group that has advocated against the teaching of critical race theory and COVID-19 mask mandates in schools, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

The video targeting Parker comes amid a wave of attacks against LGBTQ+ events across the country, including some that have led to threats of violence. In July, a bakery in suburban Lake in the Hills was vandalized and faced threats and harassment over its planned “Starry Night Drag Brunch.” Parker’s Pride Week activities last year also included a photo-op with a drag queen.

Sex toys and parental rights

Goldfarb, co-author of the Future of Sex Education standards, couldn’t comment specifically on the Parker lesson, presented by Howard Brown Health, because she hadn’t seen it. However, she said she could imagine situations in which showing sex toys could have educational merit. She thinks it’s appropriate to teach that, for many people, a part of sex is about pleasure.

If students aren’t taught about sexual health and safety in a comprehensive way in school, Goldfarb says, they will look to TV, movies or the internet, where there’s no way to verify the accuracy of the information. However, she opposes teaching the specifics of sexual acts in school.

Still, she says, parents should use their discretion to opt their children out of sex ed lessons they feel are inappropriate. Illinois state law gives all students and their parents the right to opt out of sex ed. Schools and districts, she says, should also be accountable to their communities when it comes to the details of their sex ed curricula.

The fact that nearly all students are minors is ultimately what can make sex ed, and inclusive sex ed in particular, such a difficult topic, experts say.

“You run into all sorts of very important considerations about them being minors [and], the rights their parents have, the rights that the other children in their schools have,” Stephanie Skora said on WBEZ’s Reset this week. Skora is the chief operating officer of the Brave Space Alliance, a trans- and Black-led LGBTQ center in Hyde Park.

Still, Skora said she thinks students need accurate information about sex, since some of them aren’t waiting until graduation.

“We come up against these very core moral quandaries about how we talk frankly about sex to young people, young people who may be having sex themselves, but are not of the age of consent,” she added. “And so we have to be very careful when we have these conversations and unfortunately, that sometimes stops the conversations — but it doesn’t stop them from being sexual with each other.”

Char Daston covers education for WBEZ. Follow him @behindthissky and @WBEZeducation

This story has been updated to expand on statements made by Professor Eva Goldfarb and to indicate that Howard Brown Health responded to WBEZ’s request for comment after this story originally published.

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