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June 3, 2007 - Daily Camera (CO)

CWA Debate Continues To Heat Up

Many Students Unfazed, but Experts Say They're Listening

By Vanessa Miller

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It started as the carrying on of an annual tradition to engage high-schoolers in global concerns.

But the Conference on World Affairs discussion on "STDs: Sex, Teens and Drugs" that some Boulder High School students were required to attend in April has sparked a firestorm of controversy on the local, state and national levels.

And the debate only seems to be heating up.

Parents, teachers, psychologists and TV personalities are weighing in on what advice is valuable for today's students and what "lessons" should be kept out of schools.

Students, meanwhile, have said they're surprised by the controversy. Several who attended the CWA discussion said it was unusual hearing adults talk so candidly -- including comments that drugs make you feel good and that condoms kill erections -- but that it wasn't anything they hadn't heard before.

"Compared to everything else that happens at Boulder High, it was just pretty much another day," sophomore Liam Hollins said.

Hollins said teens are most heavily influenced by their friends when it comes to decisions about sex and drugs. But experts say young people are listening carefully when their elders weigh in on lifestyle decisions, whether they'll admit it or not.

Getting The Message

Jan Hittelman, director of Boulder Psychological Services, said that despite what teens say, they're significantly affected by what trusted adults tell them.

"It's therefore important for us to be very thoughtful about the messages that we impart to them," Hittelman said. He said much of the panel's discussion was just that -- thoughtful.

"On the whole, it was a very appropriate and thought-provoking discussion that offered a tremendous amount of useful, appropriate and important information that youth need to hear," he said.

Sen. Steve Johnson vehemently disagreed.

One of 10 Republican state senators who signed a letter calling for the dismissal of Boulder High's principal and the district's outgoing superintendent, Johnson said students were obviously influenced in a negative way.

"Students are affected by messages they get by our culture in a lot of ways," said Johnson, R-Fort Collins.

The panelists were seen by students as elders and experts, Johnson said. And, after listening to the audio tape of the discussion and hearing students cheer, Johnson said he's sure damage was done.

Example: When panelist Joel Becker said, "I'm going to encourage you to have sex, and I'm going to encourage you to use drugs appropriately," students clapped and cheered, according to a transcript.

Becker immediately followed that statement by saying, "You're going to do it anyway. So my approach to this is to be realistic. ... It's more important to educate you in a direction that you might actually stick to."

But Johnson said taxpayers and parents aren't paying for realistic. They trust the system to provide a nurturing and safe learning environment, and that didn't happen, he said.

Erin Viner, a Boulder High graduate and anchor for the Israel Broadcast Authority, slammed the critics during the school's Saturday graduation ceremony, saying they're using the topic to promote political agendas.

"I'm appalled by the trashing that people have given this school and the city of Boulder," she said.

She told students the critics are underestimating them.

"They haven't given you enough credit to think for yourselves," she said.

Several students have said they aren't going to make different decisions based on what was said.

"Everyone is going to have sex, and people will experiment with that stuff at some time in their lives," said Boulder High freshman Alison Blockwick. "They were just saying it's good to be careful."

Only In Boulder?

Critics across the state and nation have argued that if a school in another town had hosted that panel, parents would be picketing outside and leaders would be fired.

"The most discouraging aspect about this is that parents in Boulder aren't upset about it," Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said on a recent program.

James C. Dobson, leader of the Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, said families here won't cry foul as loud as in other places because "Boulder is an extreme community."

Parents in Boulder have complained, including one mother who brought the issue to public attention during a May meeting of the Boulder Valley school board.

Another parent, 1962 Boulder High graduate Doug Palmer, wrote to the Camera "to express my absolute disgust and disappointment in our school board and those who have been placed in authority and trust over our children at Boulder High School."

Other parents have encouraged their teens to heed messages sent during the discussion.

Evie Hudak, Boulder Valley's representative on the state Board of Education, said the community is packed with bright students and leaders, and critics are slamming the district and school "just because it's Boulder."

"The school didn't say, 'Bring a bunch of people who will talk blatantly and inappropriately about sex and drugs,'" Hudak said. "Where do they get the gall to say the school district is responsible for that?"

Hudak argued the discussion was pitched as a talk on the dangers of drugs and sex, and that panelists didn't follow the suggested topic.

"In that case, what do you do?" she said.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, said someone should have intervened as soon as the discussion started to veer down an inappropriate path.

"They should have said, 'This is not the message we want to send to our children'" he said. "If no one had the vision and the courage to do that, they should have discovered their responsibility and apologized to parents."

District officials have conceded that policy was broken when the school required student attendance. And one school board member said she'll propose age-specific guidelines for speakers who come in from outside the district.

But the school's failure to strongly denounce the message sent to students that day warrants serious penalties, critics say.

"Our kids are falling behind the rest of the world in math, science, civics and language, and the Boulder (school district) invites in speakers who encourage drug use and risky sexual behavior?" said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who signed the letter calling for firings. "They should be ashamed of themselves. Can we just get back to the basics of education, please?"

Camera Staff Writers Kate Larsen and Amy Bounds contributed to this story.

CWA Timeline

April 10 -- "STDs: Sex, Teens and Drugs," a 90-minute Conference on World Affairs panel discussion, takes place at Boulder High School, featuring speakers Joel Becker, Andee Gerhardt, Antonio Sacre and Sanho Tree.

May 8 -- Boulder High sophomore Daphne White complains about the talk at a Boulder Valley school board meeting, saying it was a one-sided discussion that discredited religious views and abstinence.

School board members agree it was inappropriate and ask the district to investigate.

School board President Helayne Jones says the event was a "huge mistake."

May 15 -- Conference on World Affairs leaders defend the panel, saying complaints from the White family about the session are the first of their kind in a decade-old partnership with the high school.

May 22 -- Boulder Valley School District Superintendent George Garcia says at a school board meeting that Boulder High School can continue to offer Conference on World Affairs sessions, but attendance won't be mandatory.

Garcia says that, though some comments made by panelists were crude and some points were in opposition to the district's health policy, the presentation overall was appropriate for high school students.

What wasn't appropriate, he says, was that some students were required to attend.

May 29 -- Media figure Bill O'Reilly calls panelists and school officials "villains" on the air, prompting a torrent of calls and e-mails to Boulder High and the school district from viewers nationwide.

May 31 -- Students from Boulder High begin to circulate a petition calling for O'Reilly to apologize for making "borderline slanderous" remarks on his show.

June 1 -- Ten Republican state senators call for the dismissal of the superintendent and Boulder High principal.

Source - Camera archives

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