Española schools turn to faith-based nonprofit for sex education
The Care Net Pregnancy Center of Santa Fe has quietly operated in an office on 5th Street for more than a decade, offering free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, adoption consulting and parenting support.
It also offers information about the risks of abortion, a staffer politely told one young woman who recently visited the center. “We don’t make referrals.”
Earlier this year, the faith-based nonprofit, part of a national umbrella of anti-abortion organizations known as crisis pregnancy centers, opened a branch in Española with more fanfare and a larger purpose: a partnership with the public school district to provide sex education. At no cost to the district, the center would send in a team of staffers and a curriculum that, the organization said, meets all state standards.
Bobbie Gutierrez, superintendent of Española Public Schools, announced the plan at a spring fundraiser for Care Net, saying the organization had reached out to her.
“I was really excited about having an organization in Española that would serve young men and women who have decisions to make about pregnancy or who may just need some assistance with parenting,” she told the crowd.
In a city with a high demand for aid and few resources, the crisis pregnancy center is a welcome addition, she said.
While the school district has some amazing teens, Gutierrez told the crowd, it also has many who are troubled: 60 percent of the district’s students live with a single parent, often because the other parent is incarcerated or deceased due to an opioid overdose. Many are raised by grandparents.
There is a need, she said, to break this cycle in the community: “We really need to educate our children, and we need to give them good choices. … I’m not sure that our young people are getting the education at home about healthy choices, wise choices.”
For kids in Rio Arriba County — where the teen birthrate is nearly double the national rate — learning to make good choices about sexual and reproductive health is a key part of that effort, Gutierrez said.
She emphasized abstinence: “It’s OK to say no. It’s OK to be abstinent until you’re older. And I think sometimes our young people don’t know that it’s OK to say no.”
Gutierrez told the crowd about her own experience as an unplanned child, raised in Texas by loving adoptive parents. She was born to a married woman with a 2-year-old daughter, Gutierrez said.
“The problem was, her husband was in Korea,” she said. “She had an affair, and I was the result of the affair, and she didn’t feel she could keep me.”
Later in life, she found her adoption papers.
“I was sold for $10,” she said, drawing laughs.
“Pro-choice or pro-life, a public school person can’t really talk about those things or how you feel,” Gutierrez said, “but I’m glad that my mother 61 years ago made the choice for pro-life, or I wouldn’t be here.”
State Public Regulation Commissioner Valerie Espinoza, a Santa Fe Democrat, also gave personal testimony of being an unplanned child. Raised by her grandmother in the Española area, Espinoza had an unplanned pregnancy of her own in her late teens. A relative tried to persuade her to terminate the pregnancy, saying it would ruin her life, but she refused.
“All I knew was there was no way I was going to abort a life,” she said. “… I just knew that was wrong and that was bad.”
In an interview Friday, Espinoza said she doesn’t characterize herself as a “pro-life” Democrat.
“I do believe it’s a choice,” she said of abortion. “I don’t believe it’s my choice.”
Urging crowd members to donate to Care Net at the spring fundraiser, Espinoza said, “Choice without information is no choice. So I wish to support organizations like Care Net, and I wish there would have been that type of option for me in 1977.”
In a recent interview, Gutierrez told The New Mexican she likes the Care Net model of sex ed because it offers choices and includes information about birth control.
It also has a component aimed at empowering girls, letting them know they can say no when pressured to engage in sexual activities, she said.
She acknowledged there are “plenty of concerns” about a faith-based organization coming into public school classrooms. But, she said, “I think all of that can be worked through.”
“Sexuality can be an uncomfortable topic to teach,” Gutierrez said, adding it requires a straightforward approach from someone with “expertise.”
Care Net is not a medical organization. Nor is it an educational nonprofit. It is largely run by volunteers on a modest budget — expenses at the Santa Fe center were about $80,000 in 2016, according to its tax documents, and a little over $23,000 of that was for Executive Director Roberta Cheek’s salary.
But Care Net centers around the U.S. have ample experience providing sex ed in public schools. Those programs have heavily emphasized abstinence — a tack that research in recent years has found to be ineffective. According to news reports, the organization also has faced complaints that its Christian message often creeps into the classroom.
Last year, hundreds of students in an Emmaus, Pa., high school signed a petition asking the school board to end its partnership with a Care Net center, saying volunteer teachers with the nonprofit allowed their religious beliefs to influence their lessons, according to a report by the Morning Call newspaper.
A boy who led the effort said he sensed a “heterosexual bias” in the presentations, the newspaper reported, and felt they “over generalized men as insensitive sexual aggressors.”
HuffPost reported in June that parents in many school districts have been pushing back against “what they perceive to be pseudoscience and regressive sexual values inherent in abstinence education, at the same time that [crisis pregnancy centers] are rising in influence under the Trump administration, which has increased investment in abstinence curriculum and awarded grants to CPCs for teaching it.”
It’s unclear exactly what Care Net would teach students in Española Public Schools. Cheek, who has been with the organization for 10 years, declined to comment on the proposed partnership or the curriculum until she learns whether the center will secure grant funding for the initiative.
She declined to disclose whether the funds she is seeking are public or private.
Cheek did say the nonprofit’s curriculum meets New Mexico’s sexual health education standards.
These guidelines are mostly warnings wrapped into larger risk-avoidance lessons: “Demonstrate skills to avoid risky or harmful behaviors in relationships (i.e., abstinence or birth control methods to avoid teen pregnancy, mediation skills to avoid conflict …); identify consequences of risky and harmful behaviors on self and others in the areas related to sexuality” and other issues.
The standards require students learn the dangers of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
State education standards on sexual health vary widely. A May report by the Center for American Progress, a public policy organization, calls on all states to “modernize and rethink sex education programs in public schools to help better prepare students for the complex world in which they live.”
The report cited New Mexico as one of the states lacking comprehensive standards. Some of the topics missing: sexual consent, developing healthy relationships, LGBTQ issues and sexual assault.
Jill Mondragon, interim director of the Española Care Net office, said the nonprofit’s program would teach “healthy sexuality.” She didn’t have details on the program, she added.
Grant funding would allow the center to hire teachers who would work in collaboration with classroom educators to provide the courses, she said.
“They just don’t have the time to launch a program like this,” Mondragon said, referring to the school district’s teachers and administrators.
Persephone Wilson, regional director of community education for Planned Parenthood, another organization that offers sex education support in public schools, said she’s seen a rise in faith-based crisis pregnancy centers taking on this role, and she finds it “incredibly concerning.”
“Obviously, they have God in their mission statement,” she said. Asked whether such an organization could successfully leave religion out of the classroom, Wilson said, “I haven’t seen it done. … Those values are absolutely going to leak through.”
Like crisis pregnancy centers, she said, Planned Parenthood teaches that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid STDs and pregnancy. But the organization believes kids will make the best sexual health decisions for themselves if they’re armed with all the information possible, she said.
Española school board members did not return calls to comment on the proposed partnership between Care Net and the district.
A spokeswoman with the state Public Education Department did not return messages to comment on Care Net’s curriculum or answer questions on whether Care Net or other faith-based organizations are providing sex ed in other districts in the state.
Lauren Reichelt, director of the Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Department, said she wasn’t aware of the proposed partnership and couldn’t comment on it without seeing the curriculum the group would be providing.
Reichelt knew the organization had opened its doors in the community because she sometimes sends a pregnant client there for help getting a crib or car seat, or she refers a parent seeking support.
In a community with so few resources, she said, every little bit helps.
Allowing an abstinence-only curriculum would be “odd” for Gutierrez, Reichelt said. She added: “I have great faith in our superintendent.”