Dear Slate, Cosmopolitan, Wonkette, Salon, and others interested in the “Peppermint Pattie” story:

We appreciate your sudden interest in our fight here in Mississippi to ensure that children get medically accurate, evidence-based, and age-appropriate sex education in their public schools. We are writing to tell you that facts matter, whether in a sex education curriculum or in a national news item.

Contrary to your headlines—and even the present progressive tense in some of your storiesOxford School District is not teaching a curriculum that compares girls to nasty, passed-around chocolate. In 2012, Oxford’s school board revised the district’s sex education policy to require evidence-based, medically accurate, and age-appropriate curricula. Oxford is now teaching two curricula recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called Draw the Line/Respect the Line and Reducing the Risk.

Sure, Slate acknowledged several paragraphs in to its outraged finger-wag that the district is not teaching these lessons today. Unfortunately, since the Slate article failed to mention when Oxford made the switch, the reader gets the impression that the district pitched the peppermint pattie as recently as yesterday instead of two years ago. The rest of you neglected even to note Oxford’s change, leaving us wondering whether you actually read the original LA Times article in full.

The story of Oxford School District is, in reality, a victory for teenagers, their parents, and those of us in Mississippi who care about whether children get the facts they need to make good decisions about their health. We helped 29 school districts achieve a similar victory.

In 2010, Mississippi First decided to combat high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections by getting evidence-based sex education in public schools. We wrote a model policy for school districts to adopt and worked with the State Department of Health to secure federal grant money to fund curricula, teacher training, and on-going technical assistance. We used our state’s teen health data to create a system of prioritizing school districts based on the severity of their teen health crisis. We called the project the Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens  (CHART) Initiative.

In the midst of our planning, the 2011 Mississippi Legislature passed HB999, a law that, though seriously flawed, required that school districts implement sex education for the first time. The one benefit the law provided is that it forced school districts to take action. We were no longer asking school districts to adopt a policy because it was a good thing to do; they were now required to teach either “abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus.” After working through several obstacles presented by the new legislation, we eventually got over 80% of our targeted districts to sign up. The fact that nearly as many school districts (71 versus 81) adopted “abstinence-plus” policies is because of Mississippi First’s efforts.

The moms in Oxford, outraged by the peppermint pattie lesson, contacted us to ask how they could get the Oxford School District involved in the CHART Initiative. We met with them and provided them information that they were able to use in their advocacy efforts. Sanford Johnson, our Deputy Director, attended a Board meeting with them and promised Oxford a place in the CHART Initiative if the district adopted the “abstinence-plus” policy. The moms are truly the heroes of this story. They wrote letters, partnered with allies on the school board, spoke publicly in favor of evidence-based programs, and organized their friends to pack the Board meeting when the vote to change the policy would take place. Their dedication and hard work won the day. Yet although the Oxford School Board adopted CHART, concerns about a backlash led administrators to decide to partially implement the curricula in the 7th grade and 10th grades, instead of the full 6-9 sequence. While we work to achieve full implementation, one thing is for sure—no teenagers in Oxford are asked to handle a peppermint pattie.

There is plenty to be outraged about in regards to sex education in Mississippi; there is no need to play fast and loose with the facts to justify an inflammatory headline. Here is where your indignation could have really helped if you had done a bit more researching and a bit less googling for pictures of chocolate: only 24.5% of school districts declared an intention to use an evidence-based curriculum as of July 1, 2012, when school districts were required to report the information to the Mississippi Department of Education. A whopping 70% of school districts reported an intention to use a curricula with a “shaming” activity like the peppermint pattie one described in the LA Times article, which is in a curriculum called Choosing the Best.W.A.I.T. Training, another curriculum chosen by some districts, uses a piece of clear packing tape stuck to and then peeled off of a boy’s arm to make a similar point.

We still have a long way to go. We want all school districts, whether or not they ever adopt CHART, to teach only evidence-based programs. We are working with the State Department of Health and the Mississippi Department of Education to make this happen.

It is easy for the national media to write short articles excerpting the most eye-popping pieces of a sex ed story about Mississippi. It is even easier to use “Mississippi” as a short-hand for “backward and ill-informed.” What is hard are the long hours many Mississippians devote to making real change in our state. We are not asking you to temper your anger when schools tell girls—or any child—that they are dirty or worthless. We are asking you to take the extra five minutes to acquaint yourself with the full story, including the remarkable progress that we are making despite the odds. If you like what we are doing, donate to the cause. Better yet, come here and join us in our quest to make Mississippi first. We can connect you to a lot of great organizations that are hiring.


Mississippi First

Rachel Canter, Executive Director
Sanford Johnson, Deputy Director of Advocacy
Angela Bass, Deputy Director of Policy
MacKenzie Stroh, Director of Communications
Josh McCawley, Teen Health Policy Coordinator

6 comments on “The Truth about Peppermint Pattie: The Real Story of Sex Ed in Mississippi”

  1. 1
    Dawn Copley on April 5, 2014

    This is a really great article in the defense of some of the unprofessional investigated reporting that has been going on lately which continues to hurt the reputation of our Mississippi schools. This ” Peppermint Patti Story ” also reminds me of the Peanut’s character that slept though a cloud of dust in classes but always passed because she cheated off of Charlie Brown!!! How dare anyone call all children or any children , ” Nasty Passed Around Pieces of Chocolate” no matter which state they live. We all live in the USA the last time I checked and this problem is an issue everywhere in our country , not just here. Teachers and schools in Mississippi are getting the bad deal. We are cut to the bare bone for budgets, because some top level employees in school systems are paid too much for thinking they know what is wrong with issues in schools in which they have never taught. Teachers and principals do most of the work in overcrowded classes and schools. There is no discipline to teach as you need at the grade level you should be teaching because there are teachers fudging grades at the persuasive suggestions of their superiors. Thus, kids get passed on and teachers must teach again what they needed to have known the year before. Each year your expectations get lower and lower to keep drop out rates low and then they keep adding new curriculum changes. Who will teach this great new program , WHICH BELIEVE ME IS NEEDED? They need a special person just for these classes in my opinion. Half the schools are sharing Counselors just to handle schedules and senior planning. There is no time for talks with social problems. We really need to have work here in this state somehow to generate income for tax revenue for our schools . Our children are our future. We can’t just keep giving them ” things” when they need knowledge. And , they definitely do not need to be called names about where they live as being, ” backwards or not as smart” because of the state they are learning. We have a heritage of many famous people to be proud of in our state. Some people came from the lowest of means and went far over the top. Can all states boast this? Our kids need to know to respect and love their bodies. They are miraculous in their creation. Respect your bodies and your self worth!! Then let them follow. When you are young you want so much so fast!!! Once you go over that line, you may realize your body could have said ok , but your mind and heart could not ! Emotions are so confusing and it is the chemicals changing in bodies at that age not being crazy or moody, or strange. We are all in this together. Let’s get together to save our kids. Hey, if a job has not come yet, let’s take time to spend with them. God bless all … Dawn Copley

  2. 2
    Angelica Duke on April 6, 2014

    “Abstinence Only” or “Abstinence Plus”. So many “great” options… Although these programs have not been shown to deter teen pregnancies (in fact, the states with Abstinence Only education have the highest rates of teen pregnancies), I support your mission to provide medically accurate, evidence based information, which has been a failing of many Abstinence Only programs.

    Many abstinence-only curricula contain “false, misleading or distorted information.” A 2004 investigation by the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee reviewed 13 commonly used abstinence-only curricula taught to millions of school-age youth. The study concluded that two of the curricula were accurate but that 11 others, used by 69 organizations in 25 states, blurred religion and science, and contained unproven claims and subjective conclusions or outright falsehoods regarding the effectiveness of contraceptives, gender traits, and when life begins.

    Among the misconceptions and outright falsehoods:
    A 43-day-old fetus is a “thinking person.”
    HIV can be spread via sweat and tears.
    Half of gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for HIV.
    Pregnancy can result from touching another person’s genitals.
    Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.
    Women who have an abortion “are more prone to suicide.”
    As many as 10 percent of women who have an abortion become sterile.[4]

    Please do right by the young people of the state of Mississippi and ensure that they are receiving correct information.

  3. 3
    Chip Gaul on April 6, 2014

    Great, great article. Not from Mississippi (I’m a North Carolinian) but have at least a general idea of how the South is stigmatized with a fairly narrow list of distasteful qualities, whilst the proactive and socially conscious people and organizations don’t get the recognition, and possible collegial relationship with the others outside the region. Appreciate all the work you do!

  4. 4
    Gloria Smith on April 6, 2014

    Beautifully said. I have to admit I was one that immediately attacked the educational system in Mississipp because of the article in the LA Times. As an educator I understand how education and educators have been placed at the bottom of the list as what should be given priority for funding and support. The educators in Mississippi have my sympathy for the struggles they are having to endure in order to educate the children of that state.

  5. 5
    Howard Wiggins on April 7, 2014

    I appreciate you folks clarifying the situation. However, if I understand your article correctly, you did state that a whopping 70% of Mississippi school districts plan to use a curriculum which employs the Peppermint Pattie shaming activity. If this is true, then the articles from the LA Times, Slate, etc., weren’t entirely false.

  6. 6
    Choose Life on May 1, 2014

    “Abstinence only works”, simply because like a person who works ardently receives a salary at the end of the month, in the same way sex is a benefit for those who are committed to one another for life. Today we just want to enjoy benefits without work and dedication from our sides. We demand respect without proving ourselves to be trustworthy, faithful and dependable. These are the kind of things we should be teaching children in order to build a better tomorrow, not the kind of education where our children are exposed to all kinds of sexual perversions. Children should be studying and preparing themselves to stand on their own in the world and not being spoiled even before they began.

    Well done Mississippi, may you put the Lord first in your endeavors and you will see Class A students that can lead.

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