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Shaheen says she’ll look for federal money after Executive Council votes to defund sex education

After the Executive Council voted Tuesday to defund a sex education program aimed at reducing teen pregnancy, a spokesperson for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said she is working to replace the funding. And Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington said she is talking with the full federal delegation to do the same.

“These programs help adolescents stay healthy by providing essential sex education, and they shouldn’t be politicized,” said Shaheen spokesperson Sam Paisley in an email.

The delegation stepped in in a similar way earlier this year when it secured $1.42 million for low-cost reproductive health care after the Executive Council voted to cut that funding.

In Tuesday’s 3-2 vote, the council voted down two contracts that have funded an out-of-school sex education program for a decade.

Following the vote, a spokesperson for Amoskeag Health in Manchester, one of the two organizations chosen by the state to teach the sex education curriculum, said they will have to end their program without a state contract. The TLC Family Resource Center in Claremont could not be immediately reached, but Executive Director Stephanie Slayton told the Bulletin in October that it had already canceled its fall sex education classes and would have to cancel remaining classes without funding.

Only Warmington and Republican Councilor Janet Stevens voted for the $682,000 in funding. The vote came a few weeks after Republican councilors voted for a fourth time to put off a vote.  They have raised concerns about parental involvement, and what they see as an inappropriate content, including defining abstinence as only sexual activity that can lead to pregnancy. 

“It’s outrageous these programs are on the brink of shuttering because of the Republican-controlled Executive Council’s extreme ideology and poor understanding of reproductive health,” said Paisley. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services contracts with Amoskeag Health and TLC Family Resource Center because their communities’ teen pregnancy rates, 18 per 1,000 teens in Manchester, and 14 per 1,000 in Sullivan County, are nearly three times higher than the 5.4 percent state rate.

The Personal Responsibility Education Program, which has been in place for a decade, addresses abstinence, the reproductive process, sexually transmitted diseases, gender identity, and relationship and decision-making skills, among other topics. 

The program is distinct from sex education curriculum taught in public schools and is available to people ages 10 to 19 and to pregnant or parenting people up to age 21. The curriculum targets at-risk youth, including those living in homeless shelters and foster care and who have been victims of human trafficking. 

The three councilors who voted against the contracts Tuesday, David Wheeler, Ted Gatsas, and Joe Kenney, have previously voted for it. Kenney said Tuesday that he does not think the current contract is “exactly” the same as the contract he voted for several years ago, but he did not identify discrepancies by deadline. 

Wheeler, Kenney, and Gatsas did not state their objections to the funding during Tuesday’s meeting. In interviews afterward, Wheeler and Kenney said they believe the program restricts parental involvement, and they cited concerns about the age-appropriateness of material being taught. 

After the meeting, the two said they have asked the Department of Education to review the curriculum; Wheeler said he wants an alternative “that would respect the parents’ position in the family as leader of the family.”

In an email, Department of Education spokesperson Kimberly Houghton said the department has had informal conversations with councilors, but it has not yet received a formal request to review the curriculum. “Once a formal request is made, (the department) will determine the scope and process for the review, including next steps,” she said.

Parents must give their child permission to participate, but, according to Wheeler, the curriculum states that information students share during the program will be kept confidential. (The state Department of Health and Human Services provided the curriculum to councilors but told the Bulletin it does not have the rights to share proprietary materials beyond that.)

Wheeler and Kenney said they have asked the Department of Education to review the curriculum for age-appropriateness and identify alternative curriculums. Wheeler said he wants the department to “see what’s out there that would respect the parents’ position as the leader of the family.”

Wheeler also cited objections to the definition of abstinence within the curriculum, which was developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. He said it includes only sexual activity that can result in pregnancy. “I think that’s what deceitful about this curriculum is that they present it as an abstinence-based program,” Wheeler said. “I don’t think that’s what abstinence is.” 

Kenney said he does not object to sex education for high school students but has concerns about also offering it to middle school students. 

“I think the curriculum has to be age appropriate,” he said. “We all took biology class as sophomores. We all took sex education through biology class.  The girls and boys were in separate spaces and the teacher explained to them about the birds and the bees and whatnot.” 

Kenney said he believes students are exposed to inappropriate “salacious” material at a young age, and said elements of the curriculum concern him. When asked for examples, Kenney referred a reporter to Wheeler. 

“Kids are growing up too fast and being exposed to too much during those formative years when they should be focusing on their school, friends, their community, athletics, and their social interactions,” he said. “That’s where the focus needs to be.”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon,  Liz Canada, advocacy manager for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Planned Parenthood New Hampshire Action Fund, said the vote jeopardizes the state’s health outcomes.

“Government officials should be working together to ensure the people of New Hampshire have access to the support, resources, education, and health care they need to make the best decisions for their lives and their families,” Canada said. “Yet, the majority of the council is solely focused on taking reproductive health care away from Granite Staters, as evidenced by this vote to defund sex ed funding and four previous votes to defund family planning programs that cover birth control, cancer screenings, and STI testing and treatment. “

Canada continued: “By gutting the family planning program and rejecting routine funding for after-school sex education, the Executive Council continues to jeopardize New Hampshire’s capacity to reduce rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in our state at a time when the landscape of reproductive health care nationwide is in chaos because of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.”