ELPS Sex Ed Advisory Board Hopes to Make Big Changes

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Monday, September 28, 2015, 8:42 am
Karessa Wheeler

From left, Dori Leyko, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment; Bree Anderson, co-chair; Mary Ellen Vrbanac, sexual education director; ELSH seniors Aiden Foster-Fishman and Isabella Ndlebe; parent Melissa Fore

After a spring rocked by controversy and national media attention, the East Lansing Sex Education Advisory Board is ready to get down to business and revamp the curriculum for elementary, middle and high school.

On their initial meeting Thursday, nine of the sixteen board members gathered at East Lansing High School to outline their initial goals for the sexual education curriculum.

Co-chair Bree Anderson led the meeting which gave the members a chance to introduce themselves. Anderson is associate director of the Michigan Council on Maternal and Child Health and has a third grader at Donley Elementary School. She has served on the board for around three years.

Also co-chairing the committee is Marianne Flynn, a Registered Nurse with four children whose passion is working in women’s health.

“I know that whatever was going on in sex ed wasn’t working. People were thinking they were protected and they weren’t. My heart goes out to people in that situation,” Flynn said. “That is why we need comprehensive sexual education here in East Lansing. We can make this into something really great.”

Parent members of the committee include Chris Ahlin, a professor of economy at MSU with three kids in Marble Elementary and MacDonald Middle schools, and Melissa Fore, a James Madison professor specializing in race, class, gender and sexuality. Fore mentioned specifically hoping to increase the knowledge of consent within the high school community in order to decrease future instances of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The student body is presented by East Lansing High School seniors Aiden Foster-Fishman and Isabelle Ndlebe. Fishman is currently vice president of the student body, president of Students for Gender Equality and president of the National Honor Society. Ndlebe is also a member of Students for Gender Equality. Both are hoping to improve the teaching of sex education and increasing the accessibility of the curriculum to LGBTQ students.

“As a member of the Students for Gender Equality, I am very passionate about changing the way sex ed is taught in our school,” said Fishman.

The school administration is represented by the newly appointed sex education director Mary Ellen Vrbanac, a fourth grade teacher at Pinecrest Elementary School; Dori Leyko, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment; and Robert Smith, sexual education teacher at East Lansing High School.

Vrbanac has been interested in sex education for her entire 38 year teaching career. She was trained in sexual education in the 1980s. Smith has been teaching for 21 years and has coached girls’ basketball for fifteen years. In previous years, Smith had supplemented the “Michigan Model” approved sexual education curriculum with guest speakers from SMART, Planned Parenthood, EVE and the East Lansing Police Department. However, last spring a parent (Alice Dreger, Publisher of East Lansing Info) live-tweeted the classroom demonstration by SMART which led to the school board banning all outside vendors from teaching sex education classes.

Smith told the board that his job is made difficult by extremely outdated text books. He would like to incorporate new technology as well as new health books. He would like to see the board move forward with a curriculum the values everyone’s input.

“I care a lot about this school and getting these kids where they need to be. I hope the perception isn’t that we have neglected this purposefully. We have what it takes to do it right. We are right in the middle of everything here – how could we not get it right?” Smith said. “We could be a great example for what could be done in other districts.”

The board is planning a series of meetings this fall to set goals and objectives “to reduce the rates of sex, pregnancy and diseases”, Vrbanac said. A top priority is to write a report including goals and objectives that will be made available to the public and parents.

Anderson told the board that they needed to remember that their role is advisory only and that the Board of Education can reject or accept their recommendations. However, there has not yet been an instance when the Board has rejected a suggestion by the Advisory Board, she said.

Another top goal for Vrbanac is to create an “environmental scan,” or a collection of data on sexual demographics for the district. Most of the information can come from the county health department but will also involve surveys of current students. She is also making sure that teachers for each levels are appropriately trained.

Meanwhile, Smith assured the board that students will still be receiving a full sexual education even while the district decides how it wants to change the curriculum in the future. And while the board has forbidden outside vendors, that may or may not include outside speakers who are unpaid, such as representatives from Planned Parenthood and ELPD.

Also appointed to the board but not present this week were: Rabbi Amy Bigman of congregation Shaarey Zedek,; Kevin DeYoung of the University Reformed Church; Karla Hudson; Dr. Sung Lee, an Okemos gynecologist; Mohammad Hammad, Kim Henderson, Rebecca Malouin, assistant professor of family medicine at MSU; and Laura Kuntz, assistant rector for youth ministries at All Saints Episcopal Church.

The board will meet again at 7 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 14.

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