Federal funding in hand, Claremont family center restores sex education program

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-18-2023 10:38 PM

CLAREMONT — With federal funding in hand this fall, TLC Family Resource Center has been able to resume its delivery of a sexual education program in Sullivan County schools.

The Republican-majority Executive Council had tabled the funding for Claremont-based TLC and for Manchester-based Amoskeag Health last fall, citing concerns about the content of the curriculum.

But last month, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services State Personal Responsibility Education Program would provide the funding directly to TLC and Amoskeag.

The $80,000 for TLC will enable the organization’s two employees to provide lessons in six schools this academic year, Alysse Coffey, TLC’s interim executive director, said in a phone interview.

The two outreach instructors are trained in the Get Real curriculum, which was developed by Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and is aligned with the National Sexuality Education Standards.

The program — which TLC calls SHINE, short for Sexual Health Information Network & Education — aims in part to reduce Sullivan County’s rates of teen pregnancy and sexual transmitted infections.

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“This program helps with providing information (and) resources for prevention around both of those,” Coffey said.

Given the amount of access young people have to the internet, Coffey said, it’s important for them to get accurate information about sexual health in order to prevent “risky behavior.”

Sullivan County has had a higher rate of teen pregnancies than much of the rest of the state. In Sullivan County, there were 16 teen births per 1,000 females ages 15-19, in the years 2014 to 2020, according to the most recent County Health Rankings, which is produced annually by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin. Sullivan County’s rate significantly outpaces the statewide rate of nine teen births per 1,000 females ages 15-19.

The curriculum places an emphasis on social emotional skills as a key component of healthy relationships, Coffey said. It describes abstinence from sex as a healthy and safe choice, while also providing information about safe sex, Coffey said.

The classes offer an “outlet for youth to feel comfortable asking questions” and teaches them to create healthy boundaries outside of sexual relationships, Coffey said. These are “transferable skills that they’re learning, not just sexual health,” she said.

In addition to the sessions with students, the program also offers parent information nights.

“The biggest component of this though is supporting the parents as the primary sexuality educator(s),” Coffey said. Students are required to have parental permission to participate. “The parents are the ones who kind of talk about their values and beliefs with children.”

The curriculum offers “medically accurate information,” resources, take-home family activities and access to a mobile website, she said.

The program lasts from six to 10 weeks, depending on the length of each class. It can be offered after school or as part of a health class for middle or high school students.

Michelle Springer-Blake, a health and English teacher at Granite Hill School, a private special needs school in Newport, said she is grateful to the TLC educators for bringing the program to her students.

“For one, I really enjoy that I don’t have to teach sex ed as a health teacher,” Springer-Blake said.

Also the program is broader than sexual health and offers instruction in reproductive anatomy and healthy relationships, “which is really important at the high school level,” she said.

All of her students’ parents have signed the required permission slip to participate in the course. When parents have questions, she sends home information sheets provided by the TLC educators.

“We have not had any parent complaint,” Springer-Blake said.

The program also covers topics such as non-binary gender identities and sexual health for LGBTQ+ people.

“That’s where I would get stuck as a health teacher,” she said. “It’s a newer kind of way.”

Hanah LaBarre, a life sciences teacher at LEAF Charter School in Sullivan County’s Alstead, N.H., said her students are engaged with the TLC educator and the material.

“They’re grossed out by anatomy,” she said, but “it’s not all about anatomy.”

The instructor Kerry Rochford Hague lets the students’ questions drive the conversation.

“Their hands are up all the time,” LaBarre said. “That is not an average response in school these days.”

The subject matter, including how students present themselves on social media and what stereotypes exist, sparks their curiosity, she said.

“Students have such a huge variety of socialization right now,” LaBarre said. “Just even having a conversation to get on the same page: ‘What does this word mean?’ Or, ‘Why would someone assume this?’ ‘People get offended so quickly — why?’ ”

Republican members of the Executive Council who supported tabling the contracts last fall, Joe Kenney and David Wheeler, cited concerns about parents’ rights to know what their children say during the program, according to reporting from New Hampshire Bulletin at the time. Ted Gatsas, also a Republican, joined Kenney and Wheeler in supporting the tabling of the contracts, while councilors Cinde Warmington, a Democrat who is now running for governor, and Janet Stevens, a Republican, supported voting on the contract.

Without funding last year, TLC had to “strip a lot of things back,” Coffey said. That included reducing the hours of the employees trained in the curriculum.

Springer-Blake said one term of SHINE classes were canceled at Granite Hill due to the funding challenges last year. She’s glad the funding has been restored this year.

“It really is helping students understand their bodies, relationships (and) identity,” Springer-Blake said.

“I think it’s really important.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.