A few weeks back, an email landed in parent Annie Band’s inbox asking if she wanted to opt her child out of a presentation.
“My stomach kind of dropped,” Band says.
That’s because she’d heard the speaker’s name—Shelly Donahue—before, and knew she had a controversial way of talking about sex.
“I’d already watched enough of her videos to know that her message contained a lot of misinformation, outright falsehoods, shaming, damaging language, gender stereotyping,” Band says.
In one such video, Donahue tells a crowd of high school students that girls shouldn’t initiate relationships with boys.
“Guys, we’re seeing the most sexually aggressive teenage girls we’ve ever seen,” says Donahue. “Have you ever had a girl call you before you call her? Have you ever had a girl text you before you texted her? Have you ever had a girl touch you before you touched her? Kiss you before you kissed her? I know, your heads are bobbing like dogs in the back of the window. I know! Girls, you know what? That’s not our job!”
When Band and others argued that this Christian abstinence speaker shouldn’t be taking up class time, Donahue’s school-day talks were canceled.
Still, new Teton County Superintendent Gillian Chapman is fan of Donahue’s approach. She and the chair of the school board saw Donahue speak at a crisis pregnancy center fundraiser last year.
“I was impressed with her, her ability to connect with students,” Chapman says.
Chapman didn’t think the presentations planned for groups of eighth through 12th graders would cause an uproar, because Donahue had spoken at the district two years back.
“And, no complaints or concerns from parents or students,” says Chapman. “The opportunity was presented that she could come back. It didn’t cost the district anything. It certainly was an appropriate message for students to hear.”
The crisis pregnancy center footed the bill. About half of states require schools to teach sex ed. Wyoming does not. Teton County—unlike many districts—chooses to provide a comprehensive safe-sex program.
“We do provide an evidence-based program,” says Chapman. “Shelly Donahue’s presentation is one very small component.”
Chapman says they’re not just presenting abstinence. Students learn about topics like contraception, STDs and consent through a curriculum called “Making Proud Choices!” When groups like the U.S. Health Department have evaluated that program, they’ve found that it is “evidence-based,” meaning it’s been proven to reduce risky sexual behavior in teens.
Chapman says it’s okay to throw a little abstinence education into the mix.
“Abstinence works,” says Chapman. “If you don’t have sex, you don’t get pregnant and you don’t get sexually transmitted diseases.”
But the majority of studies show that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work, because it doesn’t actually convince kids to not have sex. Still, speakers like Donahue have been preaching in public schools for decades, backed by federal dollars.
Donahue says, when Clinton and Bush were in the White House, she was visiting about 100 schools a year.
“And then 2008 came, President Obama was elected, he took the majority of the abstinence money,” Donahue says.
Donahue has spent her career teaching a curriculum called ‘WAIT Training.’ Groups that promote comprehensive sex ed have reviewed the program and concluded it was based on fear, shame, misinformation, and gender stereotyping.
While Donahue is a Christian, she says she gives a secular version of her talk to public school crowds.
“I don’t have to quote a scripture,” says Donahue. “I don’t have to say the verse. Kids get truth. Truth is truth, whether I say the scripture that’s related to it or not.”
Donahue argues she’s had to adhere to scientific standards to get federal grant money.
There are hundreds of abstinence-only programs, but the U.S. Health Department has found just 3 to be evidence-based—and Donahue’s isn’t one of them. Still, her brand of sex ed is pretty common around the country, so Donahue says she was surprised by the reaction in Jackson.
“Give me a break,” says Donahue. “I’m just astounded. I have never gotten this pushback ever. The only reason I’ve ever been canceled is because of a blizzard.”
Some parents weren’t happy that Donahue’s message wasn’t heard during school hours—like Gloria Courser, who has two daughters in the school district. Donahue was still allowed to give an evening talk, and Courser went.
“I thought it was a fantastic, supportive, full-of-value discussion that I would love for my daughters to hear,” Courser says.
Courser even filed a petition with the school board, arguing that students should be able to hear all viewpoints in school, including Donahue’s.
“There’s a really good case here for some constitutional questions to come up,” says Donahue. “If you are going to open the school to behavioral discussions about sex, you need to consider all value systems.”
Courser says students should be exposed to competing ideas in school, and make up their own minds about what to think. Some school board members agree with that, but parent Annie Band says freedom of speech has its limits.
“That doesn’t mean that every person with every opinion can spout their brand of reality as curriculum in a public school,” Band says.
Band filed a petition of her own, asking the school board to investigate Donahue’s invitation and review sex ed policies. Teton County School District is now reviewing its policies for bringing in guest speakers
“It is not okay to present falsehoods and misinformation as evidence-based education,” says Band. “And if someone agrees with that statement and they remain silent on the issue, then they are complicit in the problem.”