State law requires comprehensive approach including abstinence and contraception.
Carli Dean, of the Boulder County Aids Project, tries to get an answer to a question as she gives the lecture HIV 101 to Marissa Dobrez’ 8th grade health class as students Bobby Neuman and Jasmine Eckhoff listen, at Broomfield Heights Middle School on Jan. 31. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)
Boulder Valley approved speakers list
Boulder Community Health
Boulder County AIDS Project
Boulder County Public Health – Environmental Health
Colorado Meth Project/Rise Above Colorado
Good Samaritan Colorado, Trauma Services
iThrive – substance abuse and depression
Jill Kranitz – mindfulness
Peers Building Justice MESA/SPAN Collaborative
Second Wind Fund – Voices Out of Silence
St. Vrain Valley approved speakers list
Active 1 Self Defense LLC
Boulder County Prevention Center
Boulder County Community Action Program
Boulder County Aids Project
Boulder County Public Health’s OASOS program
Boulder County Public Health’s Genesis program
Blue Sky Bridge
City of Longmont Children, Youth and Resources
Longmont Ending Violence Initiative
Longmont United Hospital trauma coordinator
North Range Behavioral Health
Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountain
Salud Family Health Centers
Sherlock Hounds Detection Canines
SVVSD School Resource Officers
Tobacco Education/Prevention Program
The details that Brecke Dowling’s daughter shared with her about a sex-education lesson at Erie Middle School given by an outside speaker made her furious.
The presenter, from Longmont’s Christian-based Life Choices Pregnancy Center, led students through a series of role-playing skits in a health class for eighth-graders last school year.
Dowling said those skits included one about a pregnant teen girl who chooses abortion, prompting the baby’s father to commit suicide.
"The main theme was abstinence and waiting until marriage," she said. "They spoke a lot about STDs and how you bring everybody and all their health issues to the marriage bed. There was nothing about contraceptives. It was all abstinence and virginity."
But, Dowling said, a 2013 state law requires school districts that teach sex education to take a comprehensive approach that includes information about both abstinence and contraception.
"I talk a lot to my daughter about sex education, but a lot of parents don’t," Dowling said. "It seemed to my daughter that nobody questioned anything during the presentation. Parents are just grateful that someone other than them is talking about it."
Later, after she complained, a math teacher provided a 20-minute contraceptive lesson, she said. She added that the lesson didn’t, but should have, included abstinence as an option.
She said she shared her concerns with both the school principal and the district, but never heard back from the district with a resolution. Her daughter is now at Erie High School, where she said the speakers the school uses include both Life Choices and Planned Parenthood.
Longmont’s Life Choices is one of two organizations on St. Vrain Valley’s approved speaker list that are abstinence-centered. The other is Friends First, a non-profit based in Greenwood Village that was founded in Longmont.
Life Choices is considered a crisis pregnancy center. Crisis pregnancy centers have drawn criticism from pro-choice groups, which say the organizations mislead women by "posing" as comprehensive health care clinics.
The centers typically offer free pregnancy testing, counseling and ultrasounds. They don’t provide medical care, abortions or referrals for abortions.
Longmont’s Life Choices, according to the website, provides only "information describing the most widely used abortion procedures in order to help you understand what is at stake before making a decision you may regret."
‘A clear political agenda’
Hazen Harvell asks a question of Carli Dean, of the Boulder County Aids Project, as she gives a Jan. 31 lecture, HIV 101 to Marissa Dobrez’ 8th grade health class at Broomfield Heights Middle Schoo. (
Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)
NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado Executive Director Karen Middleton said her organization is hearing complaints about guest speakers from crisis pregnancy centers in K-12 health classes, including in St. Vrain Valley.
She said the concern is that the speakers generally have no medical background and "approach this from a really loaded perspective."
"It’s a clear political agenda," she said. "Bringing that into a classroom is really harmful for kids and unfair to parents."
She said she’s also heard reports that the centers don’t always follow the curriculums that they provide to school districts to gain approval. St. Vrain Valley moved to a comprehensive health education curriculum in 2007, forming a committee to review and approve guest speakers.
Taylor Thrasher, Life Choices’ education director, countered that the Life Choices’ school curriculum isn’t religious, is based on facts and meets school district and state standards.
"Life Choices goes into schools not because of religious agenda, rather, we want to be a safe and helpful place for students to receive information and achieve their goals," she said.
She said Life Choices gives about 100 presentations a year in St. Vrain Valley schools, focusing primarily on "the benefits and effectiveness of students waiting until marriage to engage in sexual activity."
"Our presentation is geared toward helping students evaluate and analyze the choices they have in life," she said, adding that presenters emphasize that fewer than half of high school students nationally are sexually active.
"We see and hear so much about sex that it is easy to think that everyone is sexually active," she said. "Because of this, we focus on other parts of relationships in addition to sex, such as boundaries, the difference between love and infatuation, creative dates, and helping students know that they can say no to unwanted sexual activity."
Parents have opt-out options
In both the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts, individual teachers have the option to choose from a list of approved presenters to augment the curriculum.
Boulder Valley teachers fill out an evaluation for each speaker. St. Vrain officials said teachers share information as they have questions or feedback, but the district don’t use a formal evaluation system.
Both districts offer an opt-out option for parents, though Dowling said the school didn’t send home any information to parents in advance about the Life Choices speaker at Erie Middle.
St. Vrain Valley has a list of 25 approved organizations for speakers, but didn’t break out the standards covered by each organization in the list provided to the Daily Camera and Times-Call.
The neighboring Boulder Valley School District has a list of 16 approved organizations for speakers that includes the grade level and health standards covered by each organization.
In Boulder Valley, three of the 16 organizations provide speakers to address human growth and sexuality: Boulder County AIDS Project, Boulder Valley Women’s Health and Peers Building Justice.
Other organizations on Boulder Valley’s list address emotional and social wellness, physical wellness, substance use, injury prevention, violence awareness and diversity awareness.
Five speakers are on both districts’ lists: Boulder Valley Women’s Health, Boulder County Aids Project, Boulder County Public Health’s OASOS program, Blue Sky Bridge and OUT Boulder County.
St. Vrain Valley officials said they didn’t know of any speaker applications in the last five years that weren’t approved and didn’t know of any parent complaints.
But both Dowling and a second parent have complained about Life Choices’ presentations.
Facts, not opinions
In 2012, parent Kandace Donovan raised concerns about Life Choices giving presentations at Lyons Middle/Senior. She said at the time that faith-based groups should not have access to children in public schools and noted that the presenter handed out pamphlets to students.
"Some students might think this was the only alternative available for reproductive counseling if they came from homes where sexual health and values were not discussed," she said at the time.
St. Vrain Valley spokeswoman Kerri McDermid said the district, when appropriate, connects parents who have concerns about speaker presentations directly to the speaker.
All approved speakers are required to adhere to district guidelines and state laws, she said, including presenting only factual materia that doesn’t include opinion or personal beliefs.
"All health presenters must sign an agreement to adhere to these and other guidelines for classroom speakers and community resources before being placed on an approved list," she said.
How the district’s health curriculum is delivered, and who teaches it, varies at middle schools. Erie Middle School, for example, provides health lessons over several of the district’s late-start days that are scattered through the school year.
At the high schools, students are required to take a semester of health and classes generally are taught by health and physical education teachers who have a background in health.
Jean Gurule, who’s taught health at Silver Creek High School since 2001 and is one the speaker review committee, said she spends three weeks covering sexual health and typically invites speakers from three organizations — Planned Parenthood, Boulder Valley Women’s Health and Life Choices.
She didn’t have any complaints about any of the three.
"They all work together really well and use common language with risk avoidance and risk reduction," she said. "All the speakers have been so open to feedback from teachers. They all have the same goal of educating kids."
Fewer speaker applications
Boulder Valley received a similar complaint about a guest speaker from a crisis pregnancy center about five years ago, with a different outcome.
The district kicked Boulder’s Real Choices Pregnancy Care Center off its approved health speaker list after a parent complained about a middle school presentation by Real Choices abstinence educator Brad Seng.
Real Choices is now Marisol Health after a merger with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver. Marisol has a student club operating on campus at CU, as well as a center located in Lafayette, but no longer has a Boulder center.
For the presentation five years ago, the parent who complained said her daughter watched Seng lead an activity where students spit food into water glasses, then were asked if they would rather drink from a clean glass or a dirty one — equating sexual activity with being dirty.
Kyle Addington, Boulder Valley’s director of health and culture, wasn’t working at the district then, but said that complaint prompted the district to tighten its speaker approval process.
Addington said one issue with the Real Choices speaker’s presentation was that he invited students to view his personal website, which included his religious views.
"The speaker protocols in place weren’t being adhered to," he said. "It focused our attention on the speakers providing perspective, but not opinion."
But since making it harder to get on the speaker list, he said, the district has seen fewer new speaker applications and is considering relaxing some of the requirements. In 2012, the district had 33 speakers on the list. Now, the list has been halved.
"It’s not a quick or easy process to become a speaker," Addington said. "It’s a difficult process by design to be thorough."
While the committee may request that an applicant redo an application that’s not specific enough, he said, he doesn’t know of any recent applicants who were turned down.
Good response to outside voice
Boulder Valley created its committee to review speakers in the 2008-09 school year. The health curriculum council is comprised of teacher representatives from each middle and high school and meets twice a year.
Marissa Dobrez, a health teacher at Broomfield Heights Middle School who’s on the health curriculum council, said a key discussion this year is reevaluating the guest speaker approval system.
"We have a phenomenal group of speakers that we can use, but it’s a lot of extra work to go through that process," she said. "We’re trying to find a happy medium."
She said one of her favorite groups for outside speakers is iThrive, whose speakers address substance abuse and addiction.
"They can provide a personal story," she said. "It just opens my students’ eyes, and it’s a game changer. When you’re talking about really heavy content, students respond really well to an outside voice."
Susan Buchanan, Boulder Valley Women’s Health executive director, said her organization talks to about 8,000 students a year in both districts.
"We are a health care provider, so we can give an objective, medically accurate presentation," she said, noting Boulder Valley Women’s Health has provided a free teen clinic since 1995. "People recognize us as real experts in talking to teens."
Presenters are sensitive to issues of gender identity and sexual orientation and don’t try to shame students into not having sex before marriage, she said.
"Research shows that all shame tactics do is push it underground," she said. "Adolescents can see anything they want online. Having someone in the classroom they can trust goes a long way toward mitigating some of the misinformation. We want them talking to a healthcare provider and getting accurate answers."
Amy Bounds: 303-473-1341, email@example.com or twitter.com/boundsa