New Hope Family Services' Real Love Respects program features a skit comparing someone who has premarital sex to chewing gum. Gina Tonello of Baldwinsville has founded a group called Stop the Shaming with the mission of removing New Hope's abstinence-only presentations from local school districts' health classes.
The Liverpool Central School District has decided to end its relationship with New Hope Family Services, the local Christian nonprofit that has presented its “Real Love Respects” abstinence education program in health classes at Chestnut Hill and Soule Road middle schools.
Superintendent Dr. Mark Potter said at the May 21 meeting of the Liverpool Board of Education that the decision was made after consulting the school’s attorneys, Director of Health Ari Liberman and health teachers at the middle and high school levels.
“They were … feeling like they wanted to move forward next year without New Hope Family Services at the two middle schools and really identify whether or not this was going to be a benefit without them,” Potter said.
Potter said the decision had nothing to do with objections raised by parents earlier this year about the tone and content of New Hope’s presentations.
“I don’t want anybody being confused that any of this resembles any … indictment or association to guilt with any of the questions or points that have been made in the last several months,” Potter said. “Realistically, it’s a conscious decision to move in a direction specific with curriculum resources.”
New Hope Family Services presented its program at Liverpool High School in 1999, but the district decided the message was more suited for the middle school level. In 2002, New Hope began presenting at Chestnut Hill and Soule Road middle schools.
Potter said he was surprised to learn that Liberman had already been discussing the matter with two middle school health teachers, Eric Cizenski of Chestnut Hill and Erin Cherock of Soule Road, for about a year.
“They both had been talking about the value that New Hope brings versus the value of themselves as teachers. They wanted to be clear that New Hope does not supplant anything in the curriculum, but rather supplements what they already teach,” Potter said.
The health teachers, Potter said, proposed that they could use class time more efficiently with their own instruction methods rather than bringing in outside presenters.
“But in saying that, they didn’t want anybody feeling like there was anything wrong with what was going on. They just felt like it wasn’t as valuable as what they felt they could do themselves,” Potter said.
Potter also said Christa Cook, an attorney with Bond, Schoeneck and King, will draft a letter to the Freedom from Religion Foundation about the school district’s decision to end New Hope’s presentations at the middle schools. The Freedom from Religion Foundation sent the BOE a letter in February condemning the district’s involvement with New Hope.
Caitlin Coulombe, a parent of a Chestnut Hill Middle School student who raised concerns about New Hope’s messaging, said she was “over the moon” to hear that New Hope Family Services would no longer be presenting to middle school classes.
“I doubt they would have had the conversation unless we had been squeaky wheels, so that’s cool. … They say it had nothing to do with parent complaints. That’s fine — I don’t need any accolades,” Coulombe said. “I’m just happy our kids won’t be exposed to that anymore.”
Coulombe pointed out that she and other community members who protested New Hope’s involvement argued that health teachers were better equipped to present information on sex, sexual health and relationships than an outside agency.
“The very first thing we requested was, why can’t the teachers teach this themselves?” she said. “We thought a religious-based organization had no business teaching theologically biased [concepts].”
Coulombe did note that she still had concerns about the state of sex ed in schools today.
“There is still more to be done,” she said. “Middle-schoolers are still receiving abstinence-only education at an age where many of them have already been sexually active. I hope that this is just the very important first step in bringing comprehensive sex education into our schools.”
Judy Geyer, interim executive director of New Hope Family Services, told Eagle Newspapers she had no comment on the matter.
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.