Cover Story

Lessons from Osseo

Minnesota reformers provide a blueprint for gaining acceptance for abstinence programs

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

Over the last two years, a group of mothers in Osseo, Minn., has been at the forefront of a potential sex-education revolution. As a result of their efforts, Osseo-a large, suburban school district near Minneapolis-has put in place a unique two-track sex-education program. Starting this fall, parents of Osseo junior and senior high students have a choice in sex education for their children. They can select a comprehensive "safer sex" course, which focuses on contraception and "decision-making" skills, or they can choose an "abstinence until marriage" course, which presents abstinence as the desired standard of behavior, stresses the importance and benefits of marriage, and focuses on developing character traits like self-control and fidelity. The latter course will cover reproductive biology and sexually transmitted diseases, but will confine its discussion of contraceptives to their health-related shortcomings. Early signs indicate the abstinence program is popular. A kick-off rally for it at a local church last spring drew 1,600 students, and almost half the district's junior high and one-third of its senior high students have signed up for the new abstinence track. How did Osseo's program come to be? Why did reformers succeed there when so many grass-roots campaigns for abstinence education have failed? Jeri Gort, the mother of two and social worker who led the charge, attributes her group's success to both strategic and tactical decisions:

  • Initially, Osseo activists aimed to modify the district's long-standing "safer sex" curriculum. They quickly saw, however, that this would spark a never-ending battle with well-organized and -financed opponents like Planned Parenthood-a battle they were sure to lose in the long run. They decided to focus their energies not on changing the "safer sex" program but on establishing an alternative to it.
  • Activists framed their campaign in rhetoric that educators could understand. They emphasized "diversity" and the importance of meeting all kids' needs. In 1999, they reasoned, who can be against choice? Their message to district officials was, "Right now, you're only meeting the needs of students who are sexually active. But 51 percent of our students choose to be abstinent. These kids need support, too. What are you doing to address their needs?"
  • Reformers established a positive image. They did not bash the Osseo schools, the district's "safer sex" program, or their opponents. On the contrary, they emphasized that Osseo has great schools and teachers, but that the "safer sex" curriculum does not meet the needs of many families. In the vital area of sex education, they insisted, parents-not school officials-should decide what's best for their children.
  • The reformers' positive approach worked to their advantage, casting their opponents-the "anti-choice" forces-in the role of the dour, narrow-minded "bad guys." Moreover, the reformers worked to retain the public-relations high ground by crafting careful responses to common criticisms. For example, when angry health teachers charged that some kids would "fall through the cracks" in the abstinence program, the reformers retorted, "What about the kids who fall through the cracks in your program, kids who would be abstinent if they had support?" Ms. Gort points out that-no matter how creative their strategy-grass-roots campaigns like Osseo's can't go anywhere without a core group of four or five parents who "will bite on the issue and not let go." They must be highly knowledgeable about district curricula and policies, as well as relevant state laws, she says. They must attend every school board meeting and spend nights and weekends organizing and speaking to parent groups. According to Ms. Gort, once this group is assembled, it is important not to give it a name. It's much harder for opponents to criticize "parents" than a group that has labeled itself. Osseo's two-track curriculum still faces challenges. Most likely, for example, some of the teachers assigned to teach the abstinence track will not believe in its premises. How will reformers handle this? "Our goal is to make the curriculum so good that teachers will have to be proud of it," says Ms. Gort.

-Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, Minn.

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