Survivor Club backers, opponents make their case

When a Hillsboro High parent complained to the Metro Nashville Public Schools about the Survivor Club, an HIV-prevention program presented by Nashville CARES, last week, he set off a firestorm of e-mail attacks and counterattacks, media coverage and more.

The Survivor Club sessions were stopped, the leadership class’ direction became uncertain, the teacher was allegedly up for disciplinary action and parents on both sides appealed to the community for support.

And it all wound up in front of the Metropolitan Board of Public Education at its regular meeting on April 13.

The Survivor Club is not a regular part of school curriculum, but is available as an extracurricular “service learning project” available to Metro students as part of the Developing Community Leaders program of Alignment Nashville. The training was offered in teacher Susanne Frensley’s leadership class at the school this time around to facilitate access for students, and according to the agency, students could opt out and all had to have a signed form.

For whatever reason, one child didn’t have a signed form but stayed in the session, and the subject matter reviewed greatly upset her father.

At issue was whether or not the material being taught was appropriate for students, and whether it fell under state and Metro guidelines for sex education, according to parent Roderick Glover.

“My complaint is not against sex education, and I have nothing against Nashville CARES, but against a school system that I expect to educate and protect children,” Glover said during the board’s public-comment period. “This school and class were used to expose children to sex acts … it was a comprehensive sex class that teaches students how to have sex.”

Glover alleged that the CARES instructors used dildos, an artificial vagina and other implements to teach sexual acts, and also discussed a man’s anus as being a pleasure point among other esoteric topics.

While many in the packed room applauded Glover’s comments and his stance, the rest of the speakers took a very different view of the Survivor Club, the leadership class and the controversy in general. At issue for the students who spoke was the training itself, which they are just a few hours short of completing if they wish to become peer instructors in HIV prevention.

“This has been an excellent class, and is helping us learn how to effectively talk to and educate our peers,” said Callie Pugh, a Hillsboro junior. “A lot of what the media has been told didn’t happen; this certification means everything to us, so please don’t take away our right to an education.”

Hillsboro parent Teri Pugh backed up her daughter’s comments, adding that “This is a sensitive and complex issue, and I feel that Susanne Frensley, the school and Nashville CARES have all been unfairly attacked.

“As a parent I am disappointed and offended that Nashville CARES would be pulled out of the school and the class stopped because of one parent’s complaint,” Pugh added. “There are more than 50 other parents involved; why didn’t anybody investigate and talk to them?

Parent Kay West added onto that point, nothing that there are around a dozen pregnant girls, by one count, at the school, and that teachers and students are both alarmed at the amount of unprotected sex taking place among the student body.

“I’m frustrated about the accusations that are full of lies, anti-gay rhetoric and misleading information, and offer no proposals for proactive, positive solutions,”West said. “HIV is not a gay disease.”

For its part, Nashville CARES as an organization wanted to reiterate that the Survivor Club is not a regular class, that participation in it is voluntary and that parents are told in advance via the permission form exactly what’s going to be reviewed, and how explicit that review is going to be, said Joe Interrante, chief executive officer.

“This is a 20-hour class that teaches how to be peer counselors,” Interrante said. “As a training program, it is detailed and biologically accurate. We explain the explicit nature, and we require parental consent; in fact, parental involvement is a core element of the course.”

Interrante said that the material in no way advocates any sexual orientation or behavior, but encourages healthy choices based on “personal, family and religious values.

“This is neither lewd nor immoral, but exactly the opposite,” he said, adding that going forward Nashville CARES will be working much more closely with the schools with regard to where the program is physically offered, and enforcing the use of the parental-consent form.

Board members did not address the issue, but a spokesperson has said that Frensley has been issued a letter of reprimand. No comment has been issued regarding the Survivor Club students' desire to finish their training.

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