Onalaska Elementary School Principal C.J. Gray has received threatening calls and letters following a controversy that erupted over a sex education class she taught to fifth grade students two weeks ago.
Some parents were alarmed after hearing that Gray had answered a question about anal and oral sex from the 10- and 11-year-old students during the class intended to teach prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
Gray said she was simply responding truthfully to an honest question from a student in a factual and scientific manner.
Onalaska uses guidelines established in the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s curriculum which instructs teachers to respond to all legitimate questions.
More than 50 parents, educators and community members attended the Onalaska school board meeting last night to voice their concerns about the school’s sex education curriculum.
“I am dismayed and heartsick because our children deserve better,” said Kadra Gilliland, who pulled her daughter out of school after the class. “This has forced something on them, in my humble opinion, they weren’t ready for.”
Jean Pannkuk, who has 18 kids counting a fifth-grade daughter, said Gray did not answer the question appropriately for that age group regardless of OSPI’s guidelines.
“They are guidelines,” she told the board. “That lets me know that there’s room for the teacher to think about it.”
Her husband, Curt Pannkuk, said he wished Gray would have referred the question home for parents to answer at an appropriate age.
“The kids are our kids,” he said. “They don’t belong to the teachers or the school.”
The Pannkuks and some other parents told the board their kids came home mortified, embarrassed or upset after hearing the information on certain sex acts.
“I want to share with you my deep distress in graphically describing anal and oral sex,” said Amy Larson, a registered nurse and mother of four including a fifth-grade daughter. “I’m proposing we can simply teach that HIV can be spread by any form of sex.”
Larson told the board she would like them to use the term “sexual contact” at the fifth-grade level instead of describing specific types of sex. “I’m simply saying not now, not, not ever,” she said.
Teri Germann told the board she didn’t appreciate the descriptions either, regardless of how factual or scientific they were.
“Although there are no wrong or inappropriate questions, there are inappropriate answers,” she told the board.
Germann and several other parents expressed frustration that Onalaska Superintendent Scott Fenter told them one thing after the incident and said another in interviews with regional news media.
“To me that’s lying,” Bonnie Watt told the board.
Fenter said the media was attacking Gray and he was simply supporting her.
However, other parents like Annette Yanisch, a registered nurse who has two children that have been through the sex education classes at Onalaska, came to support the school.
“A respectfully asked question deserves an answer,” she said.
Yanisch encouraged parents to be proactive about their children’s education rather than reactive. She said it is important to prepare students with information especially considering Lewis County’s high teen pregnancy rate.
“The question asked may seem embarrassing to some but that fifth-grader received appropriate information,” said Yanisch’s husband, Doug Hayden. “I’ve never experienced in my life, a person dying from embarrassment.”
Brad Klein, a parent of four who works for the district, said Gray helped the students learn and grow by answering the question honestly.
“If they don’t get answers from a trusted adult, they will get an answer on the playground or elsewhere,” he said.
Klein said he is concerned because the statistics report more than half of eighth graders in Lewis County are already sexually active.
“We best be talking about this,” he said. “We best be teaching them to be prepared.”
Pete Murphy, who is married to an educator and graduated from Onalaska more than 40 years ago, said he was disappointed in the ways some community members chose to handle their frustrations.
“When you start using terminology like get a rope or get a pitchfork, you’re totally off base,” he said. “We need to look at positive solutions.”
School officials said Gray received several threatening calls and letters after the incident, including at least one that made her concerned for her safety.
“I think it’s appalling that anyone would write vicious, life-threatening letters,” said Pat Petrino, a kindergarten teacher at Onalaska.
Petrino encouraged parents to get involved their kids’ education and voice their opinions with educators before problems arise.
While the district did send 200 notices about the sex education home with students in March, many parents said they did not see the form. Others did see the form but said it did not raise any red flags because they trusted the school to provide age appropriate information.
The state requires parents to look at the curriculum before they can opt their child out of the classes. Still, only three showed up for the review in April and just two opted out.
Some in attendance suggested mailing the notices to parents next year. They also suggested using the school’s automated phone notice system to remind parents the evening before sex education begins.
Superintendent Fenter said he thought some good ideas were presented at the Monday night meeting.
“You can be sure we’re not going to get into anal and oral, teaching that is,” Fenter said. “We’re going to make sure those questions get answered in a different way next year.”
Pete DeYoung, the vice chairman for the Onalaska School Board, said after hearing from both sides he wasn’t sure if sex education prevents students from becoming sexually active or opens more doors.
“It was a real wake up call,” he said. “Definitely, we’re going to have to fix it and we will.”
Amy Nile: (360) 807-8235