By Susan Bromley
Brandon Twp.- When Tina Ayala was 5-years-old, she was sexually abused.
The experience has made her a staunch advocate for victims of sexual assault, and also led her to share her views on the importance of abstinence-based sex education with the Brandon School Board last month as they debate whether to continue as an abstinence-only district or allow teachers to also discuss risk reduction with students. The board will have a work session on the issue at 5 p.m. this Monday, July 17, at I-TEC, 609 S. Ortonville Road. A vote on whether to remain abstinence-only or to become abstinence-based may take place following the work session at the regular board meeting set for 6:30 p.m.
“There is a lot of movement on sex education being a tool against sexual violence,” said Ayala, 46, a township resident. “The implication is that number one, if you don’t teach teens what a healthy relationship is, they won’t know what a healthy relationship isn’t. Sex ed empowers kids to set their own boundaries. Abstinence only is felt to contribute to sexual violence, mostly by ignoring it. If you don’t teach it, you perpetuate the violence.”
For the past few years, Ayala has volunteered as a speaker for the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual violence organization worldwide. She “walks the walk,” sharing her story, which includes being raised by parents who both had 10th grade educations and whose marriage was failing by the time she came along— her mother was 43 when she gave birth to Tina and already had a 22-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son.
Raised in Pontiac, Ayala remembers the summer before first grade when she was 5, and the family across the street with seven children, including twin girls, four or five years older than she, who invited her to go to a yellow house down the street where their extended family lived. She went, and an adult male, an uncle to the twins, took her into the bathroom and molested her. The youngster had no words for what happened to her, and as an adult, Ayala can’t remember what her attacker said to her, but believes he must have told her not to tell anyone.
For years, she didn’t.
“The movement for me is anti-silence because I was silent for a great number of years,” said Ayala. “If you can get even one victim to have the courage to speak, it becomes contagious. The first step in making the violence stop is telling someone and so many victims don’t. The silence lets it continue. The more people speak out about it, the more the violence is uncovered.”
At a second public hearing on sex education in June, Ayala stood before the Brandon School Board, and read statistics, which she applied to the district’s current enrollment and from which she estimates that 23 boys in Brandon Schools will experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult before the age of 18 and 139 girls in the district will suffer the same fate. Of those 163 children, 55 will be elementary-school aged, Kindergarten through sixth grades, and only five of the 163 assaults will be reported to police, said Ayala.
Abstinence-based sex education would not only give children knowledge of what is an appropriate relationship and what is not, she said, but for children who have been abused, and who are more likely to become sexually active at a younger age, it can help prevent further repercussions of that abuse.
“Sexually abused children are more likely to not use condoms when they become sexually active,” said Ayala, who is a business owner, married for 25 years and the mother of two. “I debuted before high school and got sex ed after the fact. I am a successful human being because someone finally had those conversations with me. Luckily they had those conversations with me, so I had weapons against the things that caused me to harm myself. If a student has had sex before sex ed, proper sex education can halt the sex because they have learned about it, and decide to put it off. It didn’t halt it for me, but it was definitely safer, and I did not have as many partners as I could have, it definitely taught me to say no. I don’t know that I would have said no, that I would have always used birth control, or that I would have had as few partners without it.”
Laurie Bechhofer, HIV/STD education consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, said the MDE conducted a survey in the fall of 2012 of all public school districts in state regarding sex education. The survey had an overall response rate of more than 80 percent, with findings that at the high school level, 84 percent of districts used abstinence-based education and 16 percent used abstinence-only. At the middle school level, 60 percent of districts are teaching abstinence-based sex education and 40 percent abstinence-only. The number of districts instructing abstinence-based, which like abstinence-only stresses abstinence as the only 100 percent effective means of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, but also offers additional lessons regarding contraceptives, has increased from the same survey conducted in 2008.
“We encourage districts to look at local needs, student needs, what parents want and to look at research and best practice, relevant laws, and policies,” said Bechhofer. “Parents can always opt their children out of instruction and sex advisory boards have to have parents on them and children in the school district. That gives parents a strong say-so in what instruction is used in their children’s education and they should have that.”
In Brandon, a survey of parents conducted earlier this year found 94 percent of respondents in support of teaching contraceptives. A sex education advisory council comprised of 14 individuals returned a unanimous recommendation that the district change from being the sole abstinence-only district in the county to one that is abstinence-based, teaching about contraception. Students have also expressed they prefer to hear factual information from teachers in a classroom setting rather than hear it from their parents.
The sex education advisory council also cited during a public hearing on the matter last month research that shows an abstinence-based program, which stresses abstinence as best, but provides information about contraception, is more effective than the current abstinence-only program in delaying the age of first sexual activity. The majority of school districts in Oakland County agree. Brandon is currently the sole abstinence-only district in the county. During meetings the past few months, some Brandon School Board members have expressed reservations regarding possible lessons in which contraceptive use would be “modeled” on an object, or had outright opposition to teaching sex education in the schools at all, citing it as a responsibility of parents at home.
Oxford Schools has taught abstinence-based education for all of the 22 years Kristy Gibson-Marshall has been employed in the district. District officials review the content of their sex education curriculum every two to three years at the request of MDE.
“We surveyed our community and used their feedback to build our content based on the survey results,” said Gibson-Marshall, Oxford sex education supervisor. “Our community sex education advisory team is an integral part in the process. The idea is to keep information as medically accurate as possible… Ultimately, building a sex ed curriculum is a community effort.”
Ayala hopes the community’s wishes are respected when the board of education makes their decision on sex education in the district.
“I really wish people would step out of their comfort zones and realize, not all kids are having sex because they wanted to,” she said. “Progress for victims starts with speaking out. Speaking out starts with the words to say it. If you don’t have words and education, you don’t speak out…Kids are best armed against poor outcomes when they are educated.”