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 stories—Oxford 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.
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