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Experts: Michigan students given false information by Colorado-based abstinence-education program

An abstinence-only presentation provided to numerous school districts in Calhoun and Eaton Counties in October of this year provided false and misleading information to students about HIV, experts allege.

The program has already come under fire for being booked and presented in probable violation of Michigan laws related to sex-education programming. A Michigan Messenger investigation found that two districts — Homer and Olivet — failed to get the program approved by the sex-education advisory board and the school board, while Marshall schools failed to get approval of the state board of education. All three district failed to provide parents the opportunity to opt their youth from the school assembly, as required by Michigan law.

Based on a review of the presentation, called Wise Choices and presented by Barb and Rick Wise, Michigan Messenger was able to identify a series of pieces of misinformation about HIV as well as a statement mis-characterizing a University of Chicago study on sex and relationships. A video of the presentation is available at Access Vision, the Battle Creek cable access station. It is listed as Wise Choices and was uploaded to the site on Oct. 17 at 4:47 p.m.

The program reported that all forms of sexual behavior transmit HIV, that only four body fluids transmit the virus, that HIV can survive in general human environments outside of the body and that saliva only can be infectious.

In addition, Barb told students that the University of Chicago study (PDF) found that married couples had more gratifying sex lives than couples in dating relationships or those co-habitating. But the study says the exact opposite:

“An unexpected finding, contrary to prior research, was that non-marital relationships, such as cohabitation and dating, were associated with higher levels of subjective sexual well-being than marriages, particularly for men.”

The Wises did not return an email seeking comment about the alleged misinformation.

The training of Barb Wise in abstinence-only education is also under scrutiny. She is certified by a program called W.A.I.T. Training in Colorado. That program was blasted by a 2004 report (PDF) from U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman of California for providing false information about HIV.

But experts who Michigan Messenger shared the video of the presentation with generally condemned the presentation.

“Distorting scientific data is, unfortunately, the way of all cynical politicians,” said Gloria Brame, a certified clinical sexologist who holds a doctorate in human sexuality. “However, in this case, it could simply be the blind leading the blind, as one must assume that the very people who are lobbying for abstinence ed are themselves ignorant on the science of sex, and thus the most likely people to misunderstand or misuse scientific data. I realize there may well be physicians and psychologists on board with the abstinence issue in Michigan but, again, I’ll say that this is about religious belief dictating opinion, and not the facts.

“Again, abstinence ed programs omit the scientific data and replace it with religion-based beliefs about how God expects people to behave. That should not be taught in public schools, but in churches.”

Jeff Montgomery, a spokesperson for the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, also condemned the presentation.

“I agree that if her audience are high school students, this is awful. Especially those who are coming to terms with their sexual identity. They are left feeling, perhaps, like freaks. Not to mention the misinterpretation of the HIV information,” the Detroit based activist said, noting that the program excluded messages for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, focusing only on no sex before marriage messaging. “The implied (if not overt) demonizing of unmarried sexual activity and the promotion of strict monogamy does nothing to promote healthy, informed sexual choices. This woman’s presentation is not helpful or healthy. Sexual discussion is far too important to be left to inexperienced, subjective hands. We know more today about sexual development and sexual diversity than at any time in history. We should encourage serious, comprehensive and intelligent sex education. The health and safety of generations are on the line.”

Marshall Public Schools issued a statement saying the concerns raised were something they would take into account in future considerations of the program.

But Olivet School officials did not take well to the concerns and criticisms raised. In a letter to Messenger, Olivet Interim Assistant Superintendent Brooke Judd wrote:

For the most part, everyone I spoke to felt as if the decision to bring in the Wise presentation was in line with our community values. I acknowledge that we did not follow proper procedures in bringing them to present to our students, and if the opportunity ever arises again, we will be sure to meet all legal obligations prior to their presentation.

Olivet High School Health Instructor Gabe Priddy went further. In an email to Michigan Messenger, he alleged the questions about the misinformation — which were documented with links to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the University of Chicago study itself — were “loaded.”

“The questions you raise have more to do with your political agenda against Mr. and Mrs. Wise than they are based on facts,” Priddy said. “In my professional opinion the information given was accurate according the training I have received from the State of Michigan. It was also a very powerful and responsible message for teenagers to hear.”

Priddy also claimed the information presented by the Wises was in line with the health education text book used in Olivet Schools.

Michigan Department of Education officials did not return multiple emails seeking clarification of what information should be taught in Michigan schools.

“If he was educated in reproductive health, then he knows the number one method of prevention of HIV is condoms. If they don’t educate about condoms, they are not educating about how to prevent HIV. It’s that simple,” says sexologist Brame. “It has no basis in science or fact as an effective approach to adolescent sexuality. Of all the things that those speakers addressed, actually almost none of it addressed core issues in sexual health. Rather, it was a personal narrative, telling the stories of their lives as a way of proving to gullible teenagers that sex leads to disease and death. It is a negative and hateful message to send young people who are struggling to control and deal with new feelings and desires.”

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