Four community organizations are joining forces to bring sexuality education to Missoula middle-schoolers, an effort to build on what the schools teach and fill in the gaps.
Our Whole Lives is a sex-education curriculum developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ.
OWL's curriculum focuses on four core values: self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, and justice and inclusivity.
"It's based on an experiential model, using scenarios to help people think through these issues," said EmpowerMT development and communications specialist Jesse Jaeger. "It helps to have these conversations before it's real."
Christopher Coburn, an OWL-certifed trainer, added: "We feel by supporting the efforts the schools are putting forward, this can only benefit the youth able to participate to get more education.
"A lot of it is reinforcing what schools are teaching, but we'll also give them the space and time to explore topics more in-depth, like body image, impacts of social media on sexuality and the intersections between different components of sexuality,'' he said.
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Although the curriculum was developed by religious groups, religion only comes into play in a "faith add-on," which is not included in the program being offered in Missoula next year.
OWL has programs for grades K-1, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12, as well as for young adults and adults. But Missoula will be using only the grades 7-9 curriculum, and only offering it to seventh- and eighth-graders.
"Those are the ages with the most going on, developmentally, of their sexuality, physically they're maturing, their first romantic pairings," Jaeger said. "It's an important time in their lives."
It's also to "break out of" abstinence-only education, though "redefining abstinence" is one of 25 workshops in OWL's curriculum. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, 76 percent of high schools taught abstinence as the most effective method to avoid pregnancy, HIV and other STDs.
A University of Washington study found that teens who received comprehensive sex ed were 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than teens who received abstinence-only education.
Public schools' sex ed is also nearly entirely heterosexual-focused. OWL includes LGBTQ perspectives and information.
"Across the spectrum, we are all sexual beings," Jaeger said.
The pilot program will be taught by OWL-certified trainers Coburn, Kelly McGuire and Leah Fitch. Coburn is the outreach coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Montana in Missoula, McGuire is the prevention coordinator for Missoula City-County Relationship Violence Services, and Fitch is Missoula Forum for Children and Youth's outreach coordinator.
"A year and a half ago, me, Kim Spurzem, Christopher Coburn and Kelly McGuire started meeting and talking about doing more around comprehensive sex education in the community," Jaeger said. "We'd been hearing from the youth population that they wanted something more in-depth."
Because the county has signed on to the program, it dropped the faith-based add-on.
The Office of Public Instruction's 2016 Montana School Health Profiles Report found significant gaps in sex education across Montana: 19 percent of high school and middle school lead health education teachers received professional development on human sexuality during the past two years.
That's compared to 73 percent of high school and 68 percent of middle school lead health education teachers who want professional development on human sexuality.
Montana recently updated its health enhancement standards, which are vague when it comes to sex education.
Elise Guest, Missoula County Public Schools executive director of teaching and learning, said all curricula are under constant review (a change from years past when curricula review, both in MCPS and statewide, was done on a five-year rotation).
How sexuality is taught to students is determined on a local level.
In a broad sense, it starts in fourth grade with education about personal health, disease prevention and risky behaviors in general. They become more specific as students get older, Guest said.
"Curriculum, when it comes to those health enhancement lessons, are the responsibility of the health enhancement teacher," she said. "Sometimes in the elementary schools, specifically, counselors may join in teaching to some of the standards. It's part of demonstrating to kids ... that health is much more than physical health. It's emotional, behavioral and personal."
In that vein, sexuality is one piece of the puzzle.
"I think we get hung up on the sex education piece, but I think it's one variable to a much bigger illustration of trying to help children with a whole personal well-being, and helping them make good decisions for themselves, whether it's about sexual education or nutrition or abuse prevention or anti-bullying. I think it's a much bigger topic than that one variable."
Jaeger agreed, pointing out that "sexuality is more than just sex." The OWL curriculum also delves into relationship skills, bullying, body image and more.
"This is not about the schools doing a bad job," he said. "It's another layer of support. It's about the community working together to create solid, comprehensive sexuality education."
OWL's Missoula facilitators don't think the program will get push back — at least nothing like the controversy surrounding a sex-ed program in Helena schools in 2010.
"We're really lucky to live in a community that's really supportive of education," Coburn said. "We know that everyone, all people, all backgrounds, all abilities, all beliefs experience sexuality at some point in their lives. It looks different for each person, but it's a common thread that all people have.
"We're actually pretty fortunate here in Missoula to have pretty decent sex education in the schools. But some of the data coming out from the Office of Public Instruction regarding the type of sex education in schools, whether it be content or frequency or support for people who are implementing it, is not super great."
Jaeger previously served as an OWL national coordinator for the Unitarians.
"There's always limits to what a school can do around sex ed," he said. "We recognize it can't all be on the schools."