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Speaking of Sex In (and Out of) Flagler Schools: Butterfly Project Shows Adults How It’s Done

| July 26, 2010

red butterfly project teen sex education std prevention flagler county

Red Butterfly Project leader Danisha Geffrard leading a discussion on sex and sexually transmitted diseases with other teens. (© FlaglerLive)

They were arranged in a circle on fold-out plastic chairs in the old Bunnell City Hall, 22 teens, most of them girls between 13 and 17, five of them wearing shirts that displayed the “Red Butterfly Project” logo. Those five girls for the next 100 minutes would lead the others in an educational discussion of sex—the sex organs, sexual acts, sexually transmitted diseases, sex’s place in relationships, and above all, the place of self-respect, self-awareness and clear knowledge’s place in any relationship.

That discussion at the old Bunnell City Hall on July 22 was more frank than anything you’d hear in Flagler County schools, and more frank and directly informative than anything you’d hear or see in mainstream media, for that matter. At one point one of the teens dropped the word “vajayjay,” the euphemism Oprah Winfrey coined to refer to the vagina, which prompted Leah Coughlin, an HIV/AIDS prevention and training consultant with the Volusia County Health Department, who was there to provide information if and when the teens needed it, to jump in and say: “No vajayjay. Everybody who leaves here needs to call a vagina a vagina.”

Point taken. From there on, a penis was a penis, a vagina was a vagina, just as lesions, genital warts, herpes and HIV were spelled out, explained, described and warned of against all masks of romance and forever-love they prey under.

The Red Butterfly Project is a local outreach movement, developed through the non-profit Focus on Flagler Youth Coalition, led by teens, for teens. Its goals: Prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, especially among young women of color, and reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy. Girls involved in the project go to public parks and beaches, speak with teens and distribute condoms. The subject matter is beyond blushing and giggling and beyond moral or prudish judgments. It’s beyond merely the talking stage, too, because Flagler County, like the rest of the country, is part of an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and premature pregnancies that are ravaging a generation, and that a decade of abstinence-only education has done little to improve.

The Red Butterfly Project is at the heart of a community forum this evening, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., at the Government Services Building (3rd floor), in Bunnell, where teens and their parents have gathered to talk about some of the same issues the group discussed at the Bunnell City Hall. It was likely the first time that a live demonstration of the right and wrong way to put on a condom (with a real condom but a wooden penis), including a female condom, was conducted in front of a large audience inside the youngish walls of the government building.

It is all part of a new trend in Flagler County, where even the school district is hoping to steer away from abstinence-only education and try something more effective. At a workshop earlier this summer, the school board agreed to set up a series of town hall meetings, one at each middle and high school, to gauge public support for renewed attention to health and sex education in schools, which has all but vanished, in order to better counter the spread of STDs, including HIV/AIDS, and the incidence of teen pregnancies.

There used to be a stand-alone health course that middle school students were taking and that was a required half-credit course in high school. No longer. The most “health” education students get is in PE. And calling what they do get “health” stretches the definition of the word. It’s more about nutrition and changing body shapes than about sex.

Board members were told that of 587 teenagers counseled by the health department in one recent stretch, 96 were either pregnant or were seeking to get pregnant, including one under 15 and 28 under 18.

“I don’t know why it’s fashionable to be young and pregnant,” was board member Colleen Conklin’s response to that.

“A lot of different reasons,” Board Chairman Evie Shellenberger said.

“We had a trend at one time that the guys were trying to see how many they could have pregnant at the same time,” Sue Dickinson remembered.

“Oh, yeah. That’s when we were both at FPC,” Shellenberger said. She and Dickinson in the 1990s, before they were board members, worked at the high school, Dickinson as a nurse, Shellenberger as the activities director. “One of them,” Dickinson continued, “got to six. We had six girls pregnant at the same time.”

Little has changed for the better. The advice from health professionals and Katrina Townsend, the district’s student services director: “If we really need to focus anywhere specifically, we need to focus on the middle school curriculum.”

“What this shows,” Superintendent Janet Valentine said, “is that if this board so directs, curriculum and the principals can get together with student services and decide how we want this taught, when, where, by whom. That’s what really needs to be done if we’re going to move into a program the way of doing this, because there’s been so many changes over the last, probably 10 years, in terms of what’s required at both the middle schools and the high schools, it’s probably gotten lost in the mix.” The two men on the board, incidentally—Andy Dance and Trevor Tucker—were silent for most of the workshop on the matter.

The irony of the school board’s discussion is the distance it revealed between what the district is doing in matters of sex education in its schools (which is to say, little to nothing) and what teenagers themselves, through the Red Butterfly Project, have been doing beyond schoolhouse walls.

Chantell Waters red butterfly project

Chantell Waters.

By the time they were done, the teens had heard lessons in the ease and rapidity of sexually transmitted diseases. They’d heard the details of what’s involved—the symptoms, the pains, the incurability—of a range of diseases that, among them HIV/AIDS, are on the increase in Flagler County. They’d not only been told about condoms and how to put them on safely, but been shown, with two anatomically correct wooden penises (no euphemistic objects used, either) how to put them on and taken off. They were also shown how to handle a female condom, though without anatomically correct applications for that one. The girls were reminded that for all the promises of forever love, they’d be the ones left with a child every time, not the boy, “and if he’s working at McDonald’s,” Chantell Waters told them, “please don’t think you’re going to get a fat child-support check.”

Waters is the executive director of the Focus on Flagler Youth Coalition, the non-profit, independent agency that, because it’s not funded by the school district or controlled by its policies, can do what the district has, until now anyway, refused to do: provide sexual education to teens that lives up to its name, and that gives teens alternatives. Waters is also a former teen mother who spoke from experience as she and Coughlin reiterated the afternoon’s key massage: Having a baby is the easy part. Keeping one’s eye on the prize—on getting an education, moving to greater things, getting a career—is worth the moment it takes to think before engaging in sex, to discuss it, to consider the consequences, and always to take precautions.

“So keep those goals and those dreams in mind when you’re in the bedroom,” Coughlin told the group, reminding them of their future, “because if you do, that’s where you can go next, and a baby, an STD can put a stop to all that.”

girls of Red Butterfly Project

The girls of the Red Butterly Project. From left: Danisha Geffrard, Imani Thomas, Naomie Thomas, Tashaye Brown, Margaret Dorzinma, Jeanlynn Charles, and Tanisha Saint-Surin. Not pictured, Rachelle Barthellemy. (FlaglerLive)

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9 Responses for “Speaking of Sex In (and Out of) Flagler Schools: Butterfly Project Shows Adults How It’s Done”

  1. Bob K says:

    OK, so they are doing this for people who voluntarily attend; that’s fine. However, I don’t believe they have the right to go to the beach and just start conducting sex education classes and passing out condoms IN A PUBLIC PLACE. My wife handles these issues with my daughter and it’s noone else’s place to have these discussions with her. I’d be pretty ticked off if she came home and told me they were passing out condoms.

  2. Pierre Tristam says:

    Anyone can do whatever they please in a public place as long as it’s legal. There’s nothing illegal about passing out condoms on the beach or in public parks. All you have to say is no thanks. No one forces discussions on anyone. Portraying it as such already mischaracterizes an excellent initiative by undermining it with false assumptions. And condoms don’t bite. And they’re a hell of a lot smarter to welcome than an unwanted child or the sanctimonious judgments about “welfare” mothers that follow.

  3. Will says:

    My congratulations to all who are involved in this worthy Butterfly Project. Of course sexuality should be taught at home, but with so many homeless kids and kids from broken homes in the county, it’s wonderful to have responsible people take the lead in sex education.

    And, it’s very important for the School Board to open the schools to fact based education about sexual diseases and transmission as well. I congratulate them particularly on their leadership and encourage them to maintain strengh of purpose in keeping these subjects available in the schools in an age appropriate manner. Sadly, that age is getting younger all the time, but that’s why sexual education is so critical.

  4. Virginia says:

    Parents have to stop being so passive. Teens these days need to learn about sex and the consequences that comes along with it. Parents need to understand that they may stare at you when you talk, but they always don’t listen… They will be like “Yeah Yeah” but if they hear it from a different party and listen to a person thats been there they will listen. Thats Reality. What this project is doing is great…They are spreading the word and educating them. ”

    Oooo they are passing out condoms they are encouraging them to have sex” Not true at all. When the time comes they will make a decision and sometimes the guy will tell them well I don’t have a condom and usually the mistake of thinking that they can’t get pregnant the first time….at least she will have one to give so she won’t get a STD or get pregnant..

  5. SEXED says:

    This is is a good idea as long as they keep it Volunteer for kids to attend and inform parents of a private location as well. Not for public display. Most good parents would or should teach their own children about the real world we face today. Just out of curiosity, why aren’t there any Caucasian kids in the photos?

  6. Will says:

    So, what’s the story with abstinence education anyway? Is it the law in Florida? Is it required in Flagler? If it is, how would the Butterfly Project fit in? Does anyone know?

  7. Pierre Tristam says:

    Sex education standards are set locally. The Flagler school district’s prevailing policy is abstinence only (including abstinence, as far as the district is concerned, from educating children properly about sex, STDs, etc.). The school board is exploring a more enlightened, less prudish, more healthy approach. The Red Butterfly Project is able to do what it does because it’s the creation of the Focus on Flagler Youth Coalition, a non-profit organization that operates outside the district, with a federal grant, and so isn’t controlled by district strictures. Those girls you see above are basically Fragler’s Corps of Discovery when it comes to sex ed, with Danisha Geffrard their Lewis and Clark all in one (Chantell Waters would be their Jefferson in that equation).

  8. Bob K says:

    Sorry, but as a parent I have the right to have my daughter go to the beach without some stranger initiating a conversation about sex or deciding to offer condoms at their discretion. That’s my right. I’m surprised that they would even risk passing out a condom on the beach as a sea turtle cold swallow one of those things and die. Isn’t sea turtle welfare one of the left’s biggest concerns???

  9. Amber says:

    let’s not get politics involved, this isn’t about left or right.
    the fact of the matter is, whether you like it or not, your daughter will have sex. whether she does it as a teenager or as an adult is up to her, but it’s based on the foundation that you set for her. if you’re following Colleen Conklin’s plan of ‘let’s not discuss it, just don’t do it’ in regards to sex, then I hope you’re willing to care for her child when it comes along. take it from a kid that goes to a high school in this county, not everyone is as innocent as they are at home. programs like this Butterfly project are needed because they teach kids the consequences of what they decide to do. abstinence is old fashioned, and quite frankly, unrealistic.

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