N.J. Teachers' Union Yanks Abstinence Speakers From Convention

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The New Jersey Education Association has told three supporters of abstinence education they are no longer welcome to speak at the union's annual convention in Atlantic City next month.

The three individuals signed up in August to present workshops, said Bernadette Vissani, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Abstinence Education. But on Oct. 4, Vissani received a letter from the union that said her services were not needed. Two New Jersey doctors, Johanna Mohn and James Thompson, were also told not to come.

While the presenters have conceded the union legally did nothing wrong, Vissani said her primary concern was that the abstinence perspective was being censored.

"The union is a private organization and they are certainly within their rights to cancel us," she said. "But their reason for canceling us flies in the face of educational freedom and the free exchange of ideas."

Even more disturbing, Vissani said, was that her presentation was misconstrued. She acknowledged she would discuss abstinence, but she also planned to compare teenage sex to other "high-risk" behavior such as drug and alcohol use.

The teachers' union has no plans to reverse its decision, spokeswoman Karen Joseph said. The decision came after the union conducted research on its presenters. She said the union favors "comprehensive" sex education, which includes a discussion of contraceptives and abstinence.

"The abstinence-only approach is unrealistic," Joseph said. "It's the same as saying, 'If we prohibit driving, we will eliminate all traffic accidents.' While that's true, it's unrealistic. We should be teaching safe driving and providing people with tools that will bring about safe driving. The same thing applies here."

She said the approach advocated by Vissani, Mohn and Thompson was too narrow and did not represent the interests of union members. Joseph said the Network for Family Life Education, a student-affiliated group at Rutgers University, would lead those workshops. The group shares the union's belief in "comprehensive" sex education.

"We have an obligation to provide our members with a wide array of information and as many tools as we can," she said. "We have replaced the abstinence-only presentations with seminars that we believe will give our members more tools that they can use in their classrooms. This is the more educationally sound approach."

Even though the three presenters will not get to share their message, Joseph said the union would pay their speakers' fees. Vissani estimated that would range from $150 to $300 depending on the language in their contracts.

For Mohn, the cancellation was a surprise. She presented a program to union members at the 2000 convention and was told that it received a "good" response. This year Mohn had planned to talk about the risks of being sexually active, including why condoms do not always protect teenagers from sexually transmitted diseases.

As part of her discussion, Mohn said she was going to showcase medical studies about the failure rate of condoms.

"It's very disconcerting to me as a physician that I was coming with a medical message and they weren't willing to have their teachers hear that medical information," she said.

Thompson said his message was also going to be presented from a clear medical standpoint. He and another doctor were planning to share information with school nurses about sexually transmitted diseases that have become more prevalent in recent years.

"I thought it was academically arrogant, especially since I had already prepared the discussion and enlisted the aid of another physician," Thompson said. "We were going to give a medical talk. I have never spoken on abstinence."

Now that the Rutgers group will take over the presentation, Mohn suspected the discussion would shift from abstinence to contraceptives.

"I know the Network for Family Life Education in the past has strongly promoted condoms," she said. "I can't say what they are going to do this time, but I know in the past that's been their approach."

The coordinator of the Rutgers group, Susan N. Wilson, was unavailable for comment. The group's message is reflected on the cover of its annual report: "Abstinence-only education programs promote ignorance as opposed to values. You can't educate us by denying us information. You have to give us information and let us be responsible."

Ultimately, Joseph said, the Rutgers group's approach is more representative of teachers' and parents' feelings about sex education.

But Vissani was quick to note a New Jersey law that requires teachers to tell their students that abstinence is the safest way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases or becoming pregnant. While the law allows for discussion of topics other than abstinence, Vissani said teachers cannot ignore that aspect when talking about sex.

"Whenever sex education is taught, abstinence must be stressed," she said of the law. "It's a no-brainer; of course you should want to stress abstinence. It doesn't require anything be excluded from the curriculum ... it is just meant to direct an emphasis that is not there right now."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

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