Sex education is among the most personal issues addressed in schools. Families and community members have strong opinions about what, when and how such issues should be covered in schools.
There has been some public discourse about Pono Choices, a sexual health education curriculum developed and owned by the University of Hawaii's Center on Disability Studies. As part of a UH research study, a handful of middle schools chose to train teachers and implement Pono Choices.
As a public school system, the Hawaii's Department of Education follows statutory requirements, Board of Education policies and nationally recognized guidance to inform curriculum development and adoption. Among our policies is the requirement to implement an abstinence-based health education that includes information about abstinence and skill development to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STI) and pregnancy.
A recent study showed that about one in every four public high school students reported being sexually active — but only half of them used contraceptives. Hawaii adolescents from ages 15 through 19 have the nation's highest rates of STIs, and the number continues to rise.
Given these alarming statistics, the DOE welcomes public discussion about Pono Choices.
Due to its personal nature, combined with significant discussion among members of our community, the department decided to convene a diverse working group of education and health professionals, as well as community members of various backgrounds. This was the first step in response to public feedback over the Pono Choices curriculum. Members were recruited to provide a balanced and broad set of perspectives: medical experts, prevention specialists, educators and parents.
While their names and affiliations were made public, we asked members to refrain from speaking on behalf of the group, or share draft materials, until the report was finalized. It was important that these members — who were graciously volunteering their time, energy and knowledge on short notice — be provided a safe space to have sensitive conversations and honor the agreed-upon processes.
It's impossible to cover the breadth and depth of the work in this space, but we will be publicly releasing two reports shortly that will provide more information.
Group members were charged with answering these four key questions:
- Is Pono Choices medically accurate and factual?
- Is it age-appropriate?
- Does it include required information about abstinence, contraception and methods of disease prevention to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease?
- Is it unnecessarily graphic?
After three meetings, members are now reviewing a report of their work that captures discussion notes and recommendations.
As the chairman of the group, I was proud of the panel's ability to discuss sensitive and controversial issues in such a productive manner. Conversations were substantive; members often disagreed, but did so respectfully and professionally.
The public was also provided an opportunity to submit comments. Approximately 800 submissions were received. Themes from those comments are included in the report and range from highly critical to highly supportive.
To supplement the group's work, I directed an initial review of internal policies and processes related to curriculum development and selection, external research project approval, and parental information and opt-out. These findings will be published in a second report, which will also announce the department's actions on the group's recommendations. This report will also provide information on Pono Choices implementation and a detailed response to some of the most commonly received concerns.
Our public education system is doing its best to meet our obligation to educate all students while navigating a sensitive and divisive issue. As an educator, parent and community member, I value our collective effort and shared agreement that we must address the high rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among Hawaii's youth.