Sex Scandal: Brave W. Va. Student Challenges Inaccurate Sexuality Lecture

A brave high school student has blown the whistle on a West Virginia public school's promotion of 'God's plan for sexual purity.'

Recently I had occasion to talk with Ellery Schempp, the plaintiff in the landmark 1963 school prayer and Bible reading case Abington Township School District v. Schempp. The 50th anniversary of that ruling is in June, and we’ll have a story about the case in the forthcoming May issue of Church & State.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to share one story Ellery told me: After he filed a lawsuit against mandatory religious exercises at his suburban Philadelphia public high school, the principal was furious. The man actually called Tufts University, where Ellery had been accepted, and urged officials there to rescind their decision to admit him. Ellery, you see, was a “troublemaker.” (Tufts officials ignored the principal’s demands.)

Today another “troublemaker” is facing a similar situation. Katelyn Campbell, a 17-year-old senior at George Washington High School in Charleston, W.Va., blew the whistle on a guest speaker who was brought to her school to give what Campbell and many other students assert was an inaccurate and offensive talk about human sexuality – and allegedly her principal is also threatening to disrupt her higher education plans.

The speaker, Pam Stenzel, is a fundamentalist Christian whose only qualifications are that she has a degree in psychology from Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University and spent time working at an anti-abortion counseling center in Minnesota. 

During her remarks at Washington High last week, Stenzel steered clear of overt religious content but, according to several students who were there, launched into an anti-birth control rant.

At one point she told young women, “If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you” and added, “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.”

A flyer promoting the event reportedly said that Stenzel would discuss “God's plan for sexual purity.”

In a series of videos on YouTube, Stenzel makes a number of absurd claims. She asserts that using contraceptives makes a woman “10 times more likely to contract a disease…or end up sterile or dead.” In one video, she warned that, “Sex could damage you for the rest of your life” and that it could lead to “scarred fallopian tubes and cancer…You need to ask Jesus for forgiveness.” She also asserted that abortions can lead to anorexia, bulimia and cutting behaviors and that condoms aren’t safe.

Stenzel was brought to the school by Believe in West Virginia, an organization that describes itself as “a Christ-centered catalyst helping transform the economic, political, social and spiritual environment of West Virginia, thereby communicating hope and a brighter future for all.”

Campbell called a press conference, during which she urged Principal George Aulenbacher to apologize for exposing the students to a fear-based, inaccurate message. She’s also seeking an injunction to prevent Aulenbacher from retaliating against her for whistle-blowing.

According to Campbell’s legal complaint, Aulenbacher was angry at her for going to the media. The Charleston Gazette reported that in her complaint, Campbell asserts that the principal threatened to call Wellesley College, where Campbell has been accepted, allegedly saying to her, “How would you feel if I called your college and told them what bad character you have and what a backstabber you are?”

Campbell, who is vice president of the student body, told the newspaper, “I said, ‘Go ahead.’ He continued to berate me in his office. I’m not an emotional person, but I cried. He threatened me and my future in order to put forth his own personal agenda and made teachers and students feel they can’t speak up because of fear of retaliation.”

Based on this petition that’s already circulating among Wellesley graduates, I’d say Aulenbacher’s heavy-handed threats won’t work.

I understand the school’s desire to keep down the teen pregnancy rate. We all share that goal. But allowing public schools to align with fundamentalist groups that push inaccurate, fear-based messages to youngsters isn’t the way to meet it. They’ve been doing that for years now, and it simply isn’t working. Sooner or later, teenagers figure out that not everyone who has sex drops dead as soon as the act is over.

The Guttmacher Institute reported in 2006 that the vast majority of Americans – 95 percent – have sex before marriage. In the face of this reality, it seems a little unrealistic to continue to promote medically unsound views in public schools and bring in speakers who actually discourage teens from using birth control.

Ellery Schempp went on to graduate from Tufts, earn advanced degrees and make his mark in the field of physics. I suspect Campbell also has a bright future ahead of her.