When Planned Parenthood came into her freshman health class, Sage Zahnd was relieved to talk about consent.
“It’s not something that a lot of teenagers get to hear about,” the 14-year-old Thunder Mountain High School student said. “How to say no if you aren’t comfortable with doing something, and I think that’s really important to hear about.”
And it wasn’t just a school lesson; Zahnd has applied what she learned to real life.
“I’ve had some interactions with people where they were just too close or touching me, not in a sexual way, but in a way that made me uncomfortable. It really helped being able to think, like, here’s the way I can explain it without necessarily making them feel bad, but making the message clear to them that I didn’t like what they were doing,” Zahnd said.
Fellow TMHS freshman Catherine Marks said learning about consent “is so relevant” and doesn’t just apply to sex or being physical. “There’s also the issue of consent if people offer you alcohol or something,” she said.
Juneau-Douglas High School student Theo Houck started the Gender Sexuality Alliance at school. He said Planned Parenthood provides resources to the club “about sexual education for LGBTQ+ people, which is something we don’t get in our health classes almost at all.”
Houck, Marks and Zahnd were part of a crowd of about 25 teenagers outside the Alaska State Capitol Thursday afternoon. They were there to show support for Planned Parenthood in their schools, something that could go away if Senate Bill 191 passes the Alaska Legislature. Sponsor Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, introduced the bill in a committee hearing that day.
“We’re the ones who are going to be affected by this bill. We’re the ones who Planned Parenthood won’t be able to come in and educate, so it’s important for them to see that the youth really care about this,” Marks said before the hearing.
Senate Bill 191 would restrict providers of abortion services and its affiliates from teaching or distributing materials in public schools, and impose sanctions if violated.
Reading from his sponsor statement during the bill’s introduction Thursday, Dunleavy said few parents “believe schools should create a captive audience of children for indoctrination by an outside group. At times, these presentations contain lessons which are at odds with the values of the children and their families.”
For the Juneau School District, the bill would mean no more Planned Parenthood and its peer education program, Teen Council, in the classrooms. Senate Bill 89, also sponsored by Dunleavy, would impose the same restrictions. It passed the Senate last month.
Throughout Alaska, Planned Parenthood provides education to about 2,000 students every year, according to spokesman Erik Houser. Juneau students account for about a quarter of that figure, and the demand continues to grow.
“Their educator is really effective at working with teens and does a really nice job of delivering sensitive information in a way that kids listen,” said Kristin Garot, principal at Yaakoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School and Montessori Borealis.
Garot said the high school has been implementing Planned Parenthood resources for at least 10 years. Montessori Borealis teachers have been inviting the organization’s educator to help teach parts of the health curriculum to middle school students for the past couple of years.
“Sometimes I think it’s easier for students to ask someone that they don’t see everyday in the classroom some sensitive questions,” Garot said. She said teachers and school counselors are present during the lessons. Garot sometimes attends as well.
She values having Planned Parenthood and its community outreach educator, Cori Stennett, as a resource. Without her, Garot said the schools would be lacking in effective health education.
“I think it would just be really challenging for us to make sure our kids get the most up-to-date and correct information. Cori is a person who’s constantly learning. We’re having her in to talk about those difficult things, like human sexuality, and it’s really nice to have a professional who does that well,” Garot said.
Including Yaakoosgé Daakahídi and Montessori Borealis, Stennett visits nine of the 13 schools in the district.
Dunleavy’s concerns resonates with at least one Southeast parent, if not students. Sitka parent Ed Gray was outraged when, a few years ago, a Planned Parenthood staff member helped teach sexual education in a middle school classroom. At the time, his sixth-grade son was enrolled in a home school program, but he had heard the news from other parents.
“I value unborn children as much as born children and that’s what I’ve always passed on to my children,” Gray said in an interview Friday.
He said it’s inappropriate to allow an organization that provides abortions into the classroom.
“It’s the job of the parent to establish values,” he said.
Stennett, Planned Parenthood’s community outreach educator in Juneau, agrees with that last point.
Her lessons and discussions in the Juneau classrooms do not mention abortion. It’s not part of the district’s health curriculum.
If a student were to ask about abortion during a health class, Stennett said she’d acknowledge the question.
“We might say that it is a medical procedure that can be performed to end a pregnancy and there are a lot of different values and views in society about that, and we would encourage them to talk to a trusted adult or to ask their parents or family about it,” Stennett said. “And then I would say, ‘That’s not what I’m here to talk about and we’re not going to focus on that.’”
Principal Garot said she’s never heard Stennett talk about abortion in the classroom.
“We focus on what the teachers ask us to come in and teach about,” Stennett said. Those topics include puberty, abstinence, pregnancy prevention, healthy relationships, boundaries and communication.
“We work to help kids think about their decisions so they can be critical thinkers, make healthy decisions and be healthy young people,” she said.
Juneau Superintendent Mark Miller said the district empowers its teachers to use outside resources that are appropriate to the curriculum. Those organizations and agencies include Discovery Southeast, AWARE, Perseverance Theatre, Sealaska Heritage Institute, Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and the Juneau Police Department.
“I don’t see (Planned Parenthood) as being different than any other resource that teachers, using their professional opinion, implement to make sure the curriculum is taught with fidelity and integrity,” Miller said.
“I think barring an organization in its entirety from having any input or any access to the school is fraught with peril. I think when you paint organizations with a broad brush, you run into trouble,” he added.
The Empire was not able to schedule an interview with Dunleavy, despite requests. An aide on his staff familiar with the bill referred all questions to him.
Deanna Hobbs, a 17-year-old TMHS senior, helped organized the group of Juneau teenagers at the Capitol on Thursday. She’s part of Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council in Juneau.
When it fits her school schedule, she and other members of the 10-member group help Stennett facilitate classroom discussions on healthy relationships and healthy sexuality.
She said Dunleavy’s bill would have negative consequences.
“I think teens would get less sexual education as a whole and they’d be more likely to get STIs or have unplanned pregnancies. And if what this bill is after is to lower abortion rates, I don’t think this is way that would effectively lower them,” Hobbs said.
Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the state ranked number one for chlamydia.
Eighteen-year-old Andrew Ingle was another Juneau teen at the Capitol. He’s Catholic and pro-life.
“The education that Planned Parenthood and Teen Council provide is not only sexual related, but also relationships, sexual assault, respect for women — all the stuff we really need more of,” Ingle said. “This bill doesn’t help any problems that we have in the school. This bill, instead, takes away education that does legitimately help a lot of issues we have in the school.”