Research involving the Pono Choices curriculum is proprietary, UH says
State Rep. Bob McDermott is suing the University of Hawaii over access to a survey being given to public school students participating in the controversial Pono Choices sexual education program.
The Center on Disability Studies at UH-Manoa developed and owns Pono Choices, one of several sexual health education programs for middle-schoolers that meet the state Department of Education’s abstinence-based standards.
The program is a research project funded by a grant from the federal Office of Adolescent Health that aims to help reduce teen pregnancies and prevent sexually transmitted infections in Hawaii.
But Pono Choices has sparked concerns that it includes explicit lessons inappropriate for students as young as 11, such as condom demonstrations, relationship scenarios that include same-sex couples, and images of sexual and reproductive anatomy.
Critics also say the curriculum contained medical inaccuracies — initially classifying the anus as genitalia, for example. Hawaii law requires that state-funded sex education be medically accurate using information that is age appropriate, and include education on abstinence.
The DOE twice halted the program for review and to make revisions suggested by a review panel, and over the summer changed its policies to make sex ed optional and require parents to opt their children in to participate. It’s unclear how many middle schools are offering the program this school year.
McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) — an outspoken critic of the program — said he repeatedly has been denied access to the student survey, which he requested under the state’s public-records law.
“The University of Hawaii Center of Disability Studies is giving students $20 apiece of taxpayer money to take this survey, so the issue I have is 11-year-old boys and girls are being paid to take the survey (and) the survey instrument, they will not release to me,” McDermott said.
“What I want to see is the questions they’re asking the 11-year-old boys and girls, because this is clearly material of a sensitive nature, and I’m pretty sure — well, I know — in general the material violates many people’s faith creed, moral code or sensibilities,” he said.
University officials say the survey questions are proprietary information that is part of an ongoing research project.
UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said students who have gone through Pono Choices and those who haven’t are surveyed. He said participation in the surveys is strictly voluntary, adding that letters are sent home about it and consent forms are required.
“We absolutely respect Rep. McDermott’s right to file a lawsuit and ask these questions,” Meisenzahl said. “This is about trying to find the best curriculum possible to educate our teenagers and preteens. We’re dealing with reality here. Hawaii has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the country. … That’s why this curriculum was developed. Whether it’s working or not, we’re waiting to see if the research bears that out.”
Since the 2011-2012 school year, nearly 5,000 students have received $10 or $20 gift card “incentives,” totaling more than $52,000, to take the surveys, according to data from McDermott’s office.
Denise Lin-DeShetler, with UH-Manoa’s Office of Research Compliance, said in general it’s “extremely common” to provide incentives for research involving human subjects. “It’s not a payment. It’s a thank you for sacrificing time to help us with this study,” she said. “It shouldn’t influence whether someone wants to participate or not, and they can opt out at any time.”
McDermott, a father of eight, said he’s not opposed to sex ed in schools, but ultimately wants to see Pono Choices discontinued.
“It’s not age appropriate, it’s not medically accurate and it’s full of glaring omissions and it’s not forthright,” he said. “Our children shouldn’t be human guinea pigs for the University of Hawaii.”
McDermott said he is paying for the lawsuit using campaign funds since he’s suing as part of his regular duties.