FARGO — North Dakota State University will not be ending its partnership with Planned Parenthood to train teachers how to talk with students about sex, despite calls from Christian groups and 89 state legislators to scratch the program.
Safe Spaces workshops will be held June 3 and 4 in Dickinson, June 6 and 7 in Fargo, and June 14 and 15 in Grand Forks. K-12 teachers who attend will receive a professional development credit while learning to “promote healthy sexuality and relationships among the youth they serve,” according to a summary of the events.
“It basically focuses on positive youth development and adolescent sexual risk behaviors,” said Amy Jacobson, North Dakota’s director for Planned Parenthood. “It talks about the importance of communicating between youth and a trusted adult.”
At least two faith-based groups — Concerned Women for America and Family Policy Alliance — asked people to contact NDSU to urge the school to find another partner or cancel the workshops altogether. They don’t want Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services and promotes abortion rights, to indirectly reach children.
“I guarantee you … there will be discussion over abortion and how it relates to kids and how that should definitely be put forward as an option for them and so on,” said Mark Jorritsma, president and executive director of North Dakota’s Family Policy Alliance branch. “We don’t believe that is correct. We don’t believe abortion should be an option.”
Organizers of the workshops say abortion is not promoted and that teachers are not given curriculum to pass on to students. Still, NDSU has received about 170 messages and calls requesting that the workshops be cancelled, university spokeswoman Anne Robinson-Paul said.
The university also was sent a letter signed by 89 Republican legislators who expressed their displeasure with the partnership. It claimed the school’s affiliation with Planned Parenthood “violates the intention of North Dakota to avoid even the appearance of legitimizing the abortion industry,” according to the letter dated April 23.
The letter stops short of asking NDSU to cancel the workshops. But its intent was to convince administrators to end the partnership, said Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, who collected the signatures.
NDSU can’t just cancel the grant, which runs through 2020, President Dean Bresciani said in a Thursday, May 29, letter to Myrdal. The university administration cannot interfere with research as long as it complies with the law, he wrote.
“If we attempted to control research, particularly in response to political pressure, then NDSU could be violating accreditation standards, which require academic freedom and political autonomy,” Bresciani wrote. “We cannot risk our accreditation because, without it, NDSU would not be able to accept any federal money, including student loans and grants.”
In response to Bresciani, Myrdal acknowledged the importance of academic freedom but said she doubts it prevents NDSU from interfering with research.
“This isn’t research, this is outreach,” Myrdal said.
NDSU has received $250,000 each year since 2017 from a federal program aimed at educating youth about abstinence and contraception. It’s an attempt to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, according to Bresciani's letter.
Last year, $165,629 of the money went to Planned Parenthood for various education efforts, including almost $1,000 for the Safe Spaces workshops, said Molly Secor-Turner, an NDSU associate professor in nursing and public health and one of the principal investigators for the grant.
North Dakota law prohibits Planned Parenthood from teaching sex education classes in schools. State, county and local government entities also cannot provide funding or pass along federal dollars to groups that perform abortions.
But NDSU receives the federal funds directly, and state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem opined in 2013 that the partnership with Planned Parenthood does not break any laws.
Jorritsma said NDSU accepting the grant directly through a federal program was a way to sidestep the law.
Secor-Turner says the workshops’ intentions are misunderstood. The training is meant to help teachers communicate to students about sexual health “free from any personal bias and judgement, and also with respect to diversity,” Jacobson said.
“Safe Spaces for teachers isn’t a sexual health curriculum to any extent,” Secor-Turner said. “To me, it’s hard to understand how anyone can be opposed to this.”
The program has reached roughly 100 teachers and has received positive reviews from educators and parents, Secor-Turner said. Last year, workshops were held in Bismarck, Jamestown and Minot.
Concerned Women for America and Family Policy Alliance pressured NDSU to cancel the workshops last year. Other groups associated with the partnership backed out, but the workshops were still held.
The state Department of Public Instruction is not associated with the workshops, and schools do not instruct teachers on whether or not to attend the workshop, the department said. Teachers decide if they want to participate.
Myrdal said the Legislature can’t block NDSU from accepting the grants, but some lawmakers have contacted “higher ups” in Washington, about canceling the federal funding. She also said there are talks of cutting state funds to NDSU that would equal the amount it gives to Planned Parenthood.
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