In an episode that has reignited debate over what kids in classrooms should hear about sex, a Utah middle school teacher has come under fire for leading what parents said were explicit discussions during an eighth-grade sex education class.
The teacher was placed on paid administrative leave while an investigation is carried out.
But the case has divided sex experts and some educators, who believe that the state's restrictions on sex education are far too strict, which, they say, prevents 13- and 14-year-olds from receiving adequate information about risky sexual behaviors.
The teacher, Ellen Lindsey, is in her first year on the faculty of Fort Herriman Middle School in Herriman, Utah. Before taking her current post, she had taught for 30 years in another district.
Exactly what the lesson included is unclear. But the parents of the children involved have alleged that Lindsey exposed their children to explicit messages and pictures in the course of the class.
Attempts to reach Lindsey at her home number were unsuccessful. Mike Sirois, principal of Fort Herriman Middle School, said that he has since talked to Lindsey about the discussions that took place in her class. And he said that it appears the subject matter discussed went beyond the border of what is permitted by the state regulations on the discussion of sexual material in a classroom.
"It was stuff of a sexual nature that went beyond the curriculum, he said. "Her side is that hindsight is 20/20, that she probably shouldn't have said some of the things that were said."
But, Sirois noted, "She disputes some of the issues, like the depth of her discussions on these matters."
Meanwhile, school board officials would not confirm the nature of the topics that Lindsey discussed in her class.
"It's an employee issue," said school board spokesman Mike Kelley. "On the specific issues we do not have a lot we can say."
And, according to ABC affiliate reports, officials from the Jordan Education Association have instructed Lindsey not to talk to the media for now. One education official involved with the matter said Lindsey has not yet conferred with the JEA attorney on her next step, which could involve a statement to the media.
But some parents have been vocal about the alleged incident.
"The teacher was entertaining questions and expounding on topics outside the state statute," said Dewayne Smith, the father of a 14-year-old eighth grader in the class. "She was talking about anal sex, oral sex, masturbation, mechanical instruments to enhance masturbation and historical instances of self-abortion with a hanger.
"If I met a kid on the street and started talking this way to a minor I'd be thrown in jail."
Smith also said he heard that Lindsey presented her students with an adult-themed cartoon and solicited questions from the students about sex.
Not all parents said they were disturbed by the allegations. And in accordance with state regulations, all parents were required to sign waivers in order for their children to attend the sex ed sessions.
"There's gonna be questions at any age, and I'm guessing that they're gonna have to start bringing it down to the middle school level," Tara Kinkead, one parent of a child in the class, told reporter Annie Cutler of ABC-4 News in Salt Lake City.
"We know that at least some 13- and 14-year-olds are becoming sexually active and sometimes even earlier," said Eli Coleman, director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "Children have a right to know about their bodies and sexual functioning. It is our duty to inform them."
"While we believe strongly in providing sexuality education that is both comprehensive and age-appropriate, the reality of our world is that topics related to sexuality strike chords in very different ways for different people," said Don Dyson, assistant professor of Education and Human Sexuality at Widener University in Chester, Pa. "As a result, sexuality educators, including health teachers who teach human sexuality, have to be thoughtful and intentional in the work that they do."
Rules Are Rules
Still, if the allegations made by the parents of the children in Lindsey's class are true, it's likely that the subjects she discussed would have crossed the line in the eyes of the state.
Under section R277-474 of the Utah Administrative Code, any human sexuality instructional program that takes place in the school setting must not involve "the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior." Likewise, any discussion of "the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices" is prohibited.
The code also maintains that "Utah educators may respond to spontaneous student questions for the purposes of providing accurate data or correcting inaccurate or misleading information or comments made by students in class regarding human sexuality."
But under this guideline, teachers may not solicit questions from students or otherwise encourage them to ask questions pertaining to this subject area.
The alleged actions by Lindsey may fall outside of these guidelines — thus forcing the school board to take action.
"As for the school board's reaction, they probably responded in one of the only ways they felt they could," Dyson said. "They are in a very difficult place of balancing the outrage of some of their very vocal constituents, and the silent support of the majority of parents, who according to the best research, support honest and comprehensive sexuality education for their children."
Sex Experts: Change Needed
But are such guidelines constructive? Sex experts said the case spotlights the problems with current rules that govern sex education for teens.
"Sex ed discussions need to use explicit — and not vague — terminology for the purpose of clarity," said Bill Taverner, co-founding editor of the American Journal of Sexuality Education and author of numerous sex ed texts. "Young people often equate sex as meaning only vaginal intercourse, and so when a teacher leaves oral and anal intercourse out of a discussion about abstinence or condoms, students may deduce that these behaviors don't count when it comes to STD prevention.
"Explicit, clear information about the subject matter, including the risks associated with unprotected oral and anal intercourse is an important part of sex education and STD prevention."
Omitting this information, noted Suzie Heumann of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, could put minors at risk of dangerous behaviors later.
"We're a backward and arcane society," Heumann said. "We have abandoned our young people on many levels but sexual education, or the lack thereof, has the potential to seriously hurt them in many ways."
And some of the students in the class appear to be receptive to more information about sex. According to local reports, students posted signs at the school Thursday morning that offered support to Lindsey. The signs, which reportedly read "We were the ones asking her questions" were taken down by the school's principal.
"This says a lot about the students involved," Dyson said. "When students rally around a teacher in a situation like this, it is often because they respect her willingness to be honest and to answer questions that are very important to them.
"Students will often come to the defense of their parents for the same reasons. They trust and respect adults who show genuine care and respect for them."
Brad Martin contributed to this report.