NC Family Communications Director Traci Griggs speaks with Joe Werrell, a community activist, about recent effort by the organization called ShiftNC to take over sex education in Onslow County and what he and his organization did to rebuff it.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. I’m Traci Griggs, communications director at NC Family and I’m sitting in this week for John Rustin. We have the valuable opportunity to learn about the strategy of a successful effort in Onslow County Schools to fend off a sex education curriculum they considered to be harmful and ineffective. Our guest today is Dr. Joe Werrell. He is a retired dentist, from Jacksonville, North Carolina and is on the Board of Directors for a local pregnancy resource center there. Today, we will be talking with Joe about a recent effort by the organization called ShiftNC to take over sex education in Onslow County, which his organization rebuffed. Joe, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
JOE WERRELL: Thank you, my pleasure.
TRACI GRIGGS: It’s great to have you on the show. Joe, I understand from their website that ShiftNC has a mission to teach comprehensive sex education in all 100 counties in North Carolina, beginning with, one of the first ones, Onslow County, that you call home. Can you tell us why you were concerned when you learned that ShiftNC would be delegated the task of teaching comprehensive sex ed in your county’s public schools?
JOE WERRELL: Certainly. I think giving you a little history might be helpful. The pregnancy center we were at was not just about handling young ladies that were considering abortions, and we wanted to be there to be helpful for the young ladies and men who were a working with schools and learning about the sex education. So four years ago we started a program that we offered to the local schools, which is basically an abstinence-based program to teach them skills to handle their peers and not being pressured into sex before marriage. So we got this group going u and then we were proceeding and then in the local paper there was a kick-off meeting for a group coming to town that said they were here to reduce teen pregnancies. And so, I attended that meeting and did a little bit of homework but they were giving out some numbers that indicated that Onslow County had a big problem with teen pregnancies, and we learned later that that was sort of a Trojan horse to get their comprehensive sex education ideas put forward. They were using numbers that were indicating that we were number two in the state with teen pregnancies, they were using the 18-19-year-old numbers which most of those were married, because we have a big military population in Onslow County. When you got down to the 15-17-year-olds, in 2014, which was the most recent year that we have numbers, there was only 41 teen pregnancies in that group, that put us below the state average, and below a lot of other local counties, including Gaston County where they did their pilot program. But we learned that this was their way of trying to convince people that we had a problem and that they needed to be there to help us. So we went from that point to learning who was all involved in putting this forward. They had a federal grant of 1.7 million per year for Cumberland and Onslow County. Onslow’s was almost a million dollars per year for a five-year term to come in, this was federal tax dollar money to quote “reduce teen pregnancies.” And when we learned more about Gaston county where they’d had this five-year program I called the executive director down there at the pregnancy center and asked a little bit about their experience with Shift and he said he had some feedback from the pastors in the local area and they were all upset when Shift was passing out condoms as Christmas presents and they were asking him why didn’t somebody warn us that Shift was coming to town. So we got busy and started to learn about what Shift was about.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, you mentioned a few things already that you found objectionable. What were some other things that really made you decide you had to get your people together and fight this group coming into Onslow County.
JOE WERRELL: Part of was how secretive they are. They were holding meetings, they told us they were working with all these different groups from Partnership For Children, and the county and of course the schools, and working with them to come up with programs to educate our youth, but whenever we tried to go to a meeting they would either cancel it or just one person might be there that wasn’t really knowledgeable about what was going on. So we got the idea that they were being illusive about what they were involved there. So that kind of alerted us. Eventually they offered us a opportunity to be on quote their “advisory board” which I asked what’s all that about, can I, does that give me a voting, “Oh no, it doesn’t give you a voting thing, it just let’s you be a cheerleader for Shift.” I said, “No thank you, we don’t need to get into that.” So, that was the point where we decided we were no longer going to get involved, but we were just trying to learn certainly what was their agenda. Some of the things that happened on the way were the stopcse.org website came online in February, and I hadn’t really been aware of what comprehensive sex education was, and I saw the video which is called “The War on Children” that they put out. That’s one of the things that got me most upset was that this to me was a real line in the sand, the red line to taking over the sexual education of our youth. And I think parents need to be the ones that are making those decisions.
TRACI GRIGGS: So you decided that this was not a healthy thing to be taught in your public schools there in Onslow County, and you decided you were going to do something about it. So, tell us a little bit about what you did, what your strategy was, and why you think it was successful.
JOE WERRELL: First of all we were concerned and trying to learn about it and they were very deceptive about that so we you know were trying to go to meetings and learn and that was unsuccessful mostly, so we were forming our own group and got community meeting going, we got about 170 people to come to our meeting and we showed this video that was new to us called “The War on Children” by the StopCSE.org group, and showed that and talked. We got a petition going and then later on we got letters to the editor, we got people going to different meetings like we spoke at the School Board meeting, we spoke at the County Commissioners meeting, churches got involved, neighbors talking to neighbors, just kind of the community snowballing to concerned to get involved. I met with all the different School Board members individually, and it was interesting that two I learned basically were behind getting Shift in there. One asked me “What are you going to do about it?” Two of them said “Well I think we can still take the million dollars a year money but we can manage to work with Shift and not have the bad outcome,” which I found questionable. One cancelled an hour before our meeting saying “I think Shift will be in there anyway, so what are you going to do about it.” But, two of them said “Absolutely not” so God bless those two, and they made it difficult for the school to go ahead with that program. And the county, we spoke to them, and I think there was a good pushback there. So it just got to the point where their grant, they had certain milestones that they had to meet in getting people involved, and when the School Board dropped and maybe the county dropped, that just kind of shot them out of the water for getting the grant money, which is no money no Shift is the way that worked out, so that’s where we were. And then the way I found out was unique, I got a call from our local newspaper saying would I like to comment on Shift leaving Onslow County. I said “That would be great news for the children, do you have anything in writing on this?” It was a complete shock, and all of a sudden they just decided because they couldn’t meet these requirements that they were leaving town. But we need to now look at the future and will they be back, what are we going to do about that sort of thing, so that’s where we’re at presently.
TRACI GRIGGS: For other counties who may wonder if Shift is taking a look at their county, what would you suggest that people do to take a look at what’s being taught in their public schools and do something positive about that?
JOE WERRELL: Basically it’s going to learn what is being taught. We’ve certainly kind of learned in our area that the schools aren’t going to be very forthcoming on sharing that information, so you have to go look at the curriculum or ask and get involved that way. And then once you figure out who else might be influencing it, a group like this comes in and offers their quote “assistance” to help the teachers with their educational programs, we’re finding different colleges around North Carolina and things are offering this so you have to just kind of do that. Get to know what’s going on, talk to your school administrators, talk to your School Board. School Boards didn’t really know very much about what was being handled at the lower level, so it’s you know educational for them and when they started to learn about it then there were some concerns raised. But everything just goes along quietly unless someone is actually taking the time to look at it and get involved, and potentially politically.
TRACI GRIGGS: Of course, it’s one thing to fight something that’s bad, but it’s another thing then to provide something that’s more positive. So is your pregnancy resource center providing something more positive? And, what would you suggest for people that want to provide something like that.
JOE WERRELL: That’s also where we’re at now. Now that we were told basically from the pregnancy center that we were no longer welcome to teach our program in the schools, so we’re saying “OK, we’re OK with that as long as we have a Sexual Risk Avoidance program,” and ASCEND again has a good list of them. We’re now meeting with some school administrators trying to set up meetings and facilitate that sort of thing. We don’t want to walk away now, we want to see something good come, because if there’s a vacuum there I’m afraid it will be filled by something we don’t’ want. So, we’d like to have a positive input and some good program going forward, and I think then we would be better protecting the kids. One of the groups that was a keynote speaker at the latest conference that Shift had was Sam Killerman, whose website is it’s about metro-sexual, and his advocacy is a gender person, and he’s trying to teach gender identity to our youngest you know grade school young grade school kids that they can decide what sex they want to be. And he has these little graphs showing what different areas female or male that you might want to be, and that’s what he says he is, and he decides what’s he’s gonna be in the morning when he gets up, I guess, and he does that. But it’s confusing these little kids with the ideas that you know their sex is not determined, it’s something fluid, that they can do whatever they want and you know this is certainly a concern too that parents should be aware of.
TRACI GRIGGS: Our listeners would probably be interested to know too that most of the federal money goes toward this old comprehensive sex education programing. The Obama Administration has fought almost every year to eliminate the old, what we consider Abstinence Education, from federal funding 100 percent, and they have, we’ve got a little bit of federal money funneling in to provide some help for these programs in North Carolina, but essentially what happens is people have to get community support, raise the money, find people to teach what they consider to be a healthier sexual risk-avoidance curriculum and you know take it on their own.
JOE WERRELL: Exactly. We were an unfunded group, we were fighting a group that had a million dollars a year for five years, you just think what chance do you have, but fortunately good community people were involved and spoke up, so that’s what it was about. And our local state representative was very active here and he actually was able to stop 250 thousand dollar grant that the state was going to give to Shift and so I think that helped get their attention, and we were just continually kind of an irritant to them I guess and that paid off.
TRACI GRIGGS: So if people have questions about how they can proceed in their own counties they are welcome to call us here at the NC Family Policy Council, Traci Griggs, and I’ll be glad to send you in the right direction to get some resources. I’m assuming Dr. Werrell that they can give you a call and you would be willing to advise them as well.
JOE WERRELL: I can certainly do that. I have the concern right now that we were one of two counties and the other one was Cumberland County that Shift was getting this grant for at the same time, and I’m unaware of anything going on to fight Shift in Fayetteville basically. Again, another military base, which is ironic, but you know those are areas I’d be glad to help if I can.
TRACI GRIGGS: People in other counties, other parts of North Carolina are interested in getting more information, you’re welcome to contact me, I’ll put you in touch with some other organizations, and if you’re interested in talking more with Dr. Werrell, then I will connect you with him as well.
So Dr. Werrell, thanks so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for your willingness to share about your recent victory and the lessons that you learned through that.
JOE WERRELL: Thank you very much, appreciate it.
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