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St. Charles School District bucks area trend, keeps sex ed program tied to anti-abortion group

Scott Leahy speaks in favor of the Best Choice sex ed curriculum during a meeting of the St. Charles Board of Education.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Scott Leahy speaks in favor of the Best Choice sex ed curriculum during a meeting of the St. Charles Board of Education.

The St. Charles Board of Education voted Monday night to keep a sex education curriculum tied to an anti-abortion group, breaking with recent decisions by a few other St. Louis-area public school districts. 

Best Choice “is not a program to get rid of,” board member Leslie Knight before the panel's unanimous vote to keep the curriculum. The board also said the Best Choice program — a service of the anti-abortion Christian organization ThriVe, which also runs free family planning clinics — is well supported by parents, teachers and students.

The vote came at a special meeting of the board that lasted more than five hours and included comments from dozens of people. Parents who spoke in support of the Best Choice program drew louder applause than those in opposition, many of whom were from outside of the city.

Educators from Best Choice refuted parents’ claims that they shame kids who are sexually active and that the classes are faith-based or go against Missouri law, which requires sex ed to be medically accurate and teach abstinence first.

Juvaughn Baker, manager of the Best Choice program, said so-called comprehensive sexual education, which includes how to use contraception, is “dangerous.” 

“Our goal is not to shame anybody, it’s not to convert them,” he said. “Our goal is to teach your kids about the risks of sex.”

But several speakers said ThriVe’s approach to sex ed is rooted in Christian values and does not prepare children for the realities of adulthood.

“You don’t have to say God, you don’t have to say Jesus Christ to teach religious morals,” said Sara Tipton of O’Fallon.

Best Choice began in 1996, and was in 73 St. Louis-area schools until parents in several began questioning school boards about the curriculum. Earlier this year, Francis Howell School District, which is in St. Charles County, stopped using Best Choice, and other districts, including Rockwood and Parkway, in St. Louis County, have either canceled their contracts or put Best Choice under review. 

The St. Charles district brought in Best Choice as a four-visit supplement to its health course starting during the 2013-14 school year. The district does not directly pay ThriVe, which receives federal funds for its Best Choice program. 

Jeremy Jackson teaches in the district and has four daughters, some of whom have gone through the program. He said the feedback he’s gotten from them has been positive. 

“Our responsibility is to teach kids the right way to do things,” Jackson said. “It’s not our responsibility as educators to say, ‘We know you’re going to screw up, this is how you screw up.’” 

Parent Karen O’Hearn said she supports abstinence first as a part of sex ed and says it’s a principle she teaches her children. But, she added, “we want to protect them by giving them good advice about sex,” and Best Choice “does not.” 

The St. Louis region has higher than average rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and local health officials say a majority of new cases are found in young adults and teens. 

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Ryan Delaney works on the Innovation Trail project - covering technology, economic development, startups and other issues relating to New York's innovation economy.
Ryan Delaney
Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.