State still ponders ‘Pono Choices’

LIHUE – The need for teen sexual health education in Hawaii is great, says Elmer K. Kaii, director of Advancement in the Office of the Chancellor at the University of Hawaii. 

The state has the 10th highest rate of teen pregnancy, costing taxpayers $31 million annually. 

“Clearly, young people need to understand that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and AIDS, which is a core message of Pono Choices,” Kaiii said.

Pono Choices, a program designed to provide medically accurate information within a Native Hawaiian framework for sixth to eighth graders, may be used in the upcoming school year. The intent of the controversial program came under fire in the fall. Developed by the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii, the program’s goal was to educate and curb teen pregnancy in Hawaii.

The teen birth rate in the state of Hawaii for ages 15-19 in 2012 was ranked 26th in the United States, according to a poll published on The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy website. That translates to 28.1 births for every 1,000 girls.

“Given the statistics about Hawaii’s youth — the rate of sexual activity, failure to use protection, rate of pregnancy, and the spread of disease — we must work together to ensure students are educated to make better choices,” said Hawaii School Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, director of Community Affairs for DOE, wrote that Pono Choices is not approved for the next school year. She said if UH writers of the curriculum make the recommended changes and the DOE approves, then the program will be approved for 2014-15 school year.  

The DOE formed a Stakeholders Panel to look into complaints about Pono Choices earlier this year. The panel made a series of 11 recommended changes. 

“There is no avoiding the fact that sexual health education is a sensitive and divisive issue,” said DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe, who chaired the review panel.

Kauai Christian Fellowship Pastor Rick Bundschuh said that after reviewing Pono Choices from a parent’s point of view and as a minister/educator, the moral agenda is that there is no right or wrong.

“The whole tone is that everything is permissible, rather than teaching values. By the program attempting to be value neutral, there are no values at all,” Bundschuh said.

For that reason, he is pleased to hear that the review committee’s recommendations include an “opt-in” choice rather than an “opt-out decision.”

“I champion a parent having the right to choose and deciding what is best for their child,” Bundschuh said. “It is important for parents to be able to make informed choices.”

“I think parents should be given the option to explain things about sexuality to their children themselves if and when they choose to,” he added. “The opt-in choice will give parents that power.”

Originally, the program was piloted in two Hawaii middle schools in 2011. It was also studied in 34 Hawaii public schools participating in a controlled trial. The panel considered questions about Pono Choices, such as, “Is it medically accurate? Is it age-appropriate? Is it necessary to support comprehensive abstinence-based sexual health education? Is it unnecessarily graphic?”

Their findings include the following:

• Increasing information about the risks of anal sex

• Improvements to the Parent Night Guide to provide more transparency to families about the curriculum to inform their decision making

• Changing the requirement from a parent opt-out decision to an opt-in choice

• Reviewing the design and sequence of health and life science courses

• Providing clarity around the context for classroom discussions about prophylactic devices

Bill Arakaki, Area Complex superintendent, declined to comment on whether the program will be used in Kauai.

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