John Sutter heads CNN’s “Change the List” project. The initiative was inspired by Sutter’s desire to increase voter turnout in Hawaii, which, despite being the President’s place of birth, played host to the lowest voter turnout in the 2008 elections. “Help us bring change to places and issues that need it most,” the group’s Vine-drenched Tumblr page read. “Our current effort: Bumping Hawaii off the bottom of the United States voter turnout list.”
That translated to a push for Hawaiians to use social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube to encourage friends, neighbors, and families to vote. “Know someone in Hawaii? Share this ‘Mahalo for Voting!’ image… [and send] it to five of your friends and ask them to pass it on.”
Nothing like using new platforms to promulgate the same chain emails my relatives send me.
The pilot program had mixed reviews and very moderate success; Hawaii has since climbed up just a single rung, now boasting the 49th lowest turnout (sorry, West Virginia).
But it motivated Sutter to keep pressing on. He expanded the scope of the initiative, asking his audience to prioritize five issues they felt needed more coverage. “Each Change the List story focuses on an extreme case: The state with the lowest voter turnout rate; the state with the highest rate of income inequality; the river that’s most endangered,” he explained.
Over 32,000 votes later, Sutter had five extreme cases to investigate; five states, each suffering from a different “extreme” malady. He was off to try and change some lists.
That brought Sutter to Alaska; constantly the worst state for rape and domestic abuse. Our rape problem is constantly the highest in the country, at three times the national average.
Over the course of three heart-wrenching articles, he introduced the rest of the world to what prefer not talk about (or work diligently to deny). Last week, he released a fourth, entitled: “Kids in Alaska Don’t Have to Take Sex Ed.”
The legislature, at the governor’s request, is currently pursuing myriad education reform proposals largely centered around testing, privatization, charter schools, merit pay, and accountability. All good buzzwords, but ultimately nothing more, without specific policy to back up each. And all unrelated to curriculum, which, in many districts, currently lacks any sort of sex education.
“Alaska does not have a law that governs sexuality education; therefore, schools are not required to teach sexuality or sexually transmitted disease (STD) education,” reports Abstinence Works!, an advocacy group which promotes abstinence only school policies.
The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development does endorse a Center for Disease Control and Prevention program — without endorsing specific curricula — but mainly leave such decisions to school districts. In 2011, Governor Parnell turned down $600,000 in federal funding for a national program called “Making Proud Choices!,” which would instruct children about use of condoms.
“Given [Alaska’s] rates of violence, that’s puzzling and negligent – especially since programs that teach kids about healthy relationships, child sex abuse and dating violence have been proved effective in evaluation studies,” Sutton opined, in his latest piece, regarding our lack any required, statewide sex ed curriculum.
An idea ignored.
Sutter pointed to one bill currently (theoretically) being considered by our lawmakers in Juneau. HB233, proposed by Representative Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage), would “require school districts to develop age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education in grades kindergarten through 12.” Individual school districts would be charged with drawing up curricula, so that it fit the communities it taught.
If our elected officials aren’t at a point where they can actually talk about sex, it makes sense to at the absolute very least educate youth on recognizing threatening situations and prepare them with the tools to teach them to avoid them. (Just keep Rep. Neuman as far from the process as possible, please.)
Tarr is calling her bill “Erin’s Law,” after Erin Merryn, a survivor of sexual abuse who bravely spoke up and told her story when she was just thirteen. Fourteen years later, she was on hand to see Illinois Governor Pat Quinn sign into law the legislation Tarr used as a model for Alaska.
The Republican majority, to date, has yet to express any interest in that legislation. The bill was introduced on January, and is collecting dust in the House Education Committee.
Education remains a priority for the 28th legislature. The Governor has even deemed it “the Education Session.” Lawmakers have devoted plenty of time vetting Parnell’s proposal to blow up our state constitution’s prohibition on funding private schools using public money (which would make it even harder to mandate sex ed curriculum). They’ve had time to pass an education bill mandating statewide history requirements through two committees. That bill’s next stop is the house floor for a full vote.
I would never question the importance of historical literacy. God knows we need more of it. But, given our current epidemic of sexual violence, shouldn’t we consider downgrading that effort to priority number two?
While legislators consider various education reforms, and dream up worlds where lattes are bartered for condoms and GoldStreak is a viable birth control provider, shouldn’t public safety get a nod?
The students that would stand to benefit are already asking for it — far beyond the conservative proposals offered by Tarr and ignored by her peers.
If you believe the children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way…
Last April, over 300 students from every part of the state, from Allakaket to West Anchorage and Barrow to Unalaska, gathered in Tri-Valley, near Healy, to participate in the 40th annual Alaska Association of Student Governments Spring Leadership Conference. The purpose of the conference is to empower to new leaders; to “debate resolutions and discuss statewide issues that affect students.”
One such resolution was entitled “Changing [Lower Kuskokwim School District’s] Abstinence-Only Health Policy,” submitted by Bethel Regional High School Student Council. The student-crafted resolution urged the school district to adopt health curriculum regarding safe-sex practices and STI awareness. The students pointed out that Alaska has the second highest rate of chlamydia in the nation, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s rate is even higher. 44 percent of Bethel High School students are already sexually active (30 percent with more than one partner).
A second proposal, Resolution #9, supported the student bodies’ shared belief that this sort of education should be mandated in all public high schools in the state.
Both resolutions passed with support of all seven regions of the state.
So what happens when teens are the ones asking adult questions, and the adults are behaving like children?
The legislature is trying to shield a younger generation from the on-the-ground realities which they have to deal with every day. They already know what chlamydia is. Not because schools taught them how to prevent its transmission, or what it looks like. Because something happened where they had to ask a parent, or an older friend, or Google. That’s a problem. And, while there’s obviously no silver bullet, having a state version of “Erin’s Law” is a start in the right direction.
But, so far, it’s a path left unconsidered.
It’s hard to believe our politics have reached a point where a bill aimed at educating youth against sexual predation winds up on CNN before it’s heard by a committee in Juneau.
“I hope the legislature will uncover its ears,” Sutter wrote, concluding his CNN op-ed.