For the second year in a row, Eugene 4J students claim they have received district-approved sex ed training that they say is abstinence-based and violates their rights. Now, students are taking action.
From December 16-18, the week before winter break, high school and middle school students in the 4J district were required to attend training on cyberbullying and sexting prevention. The Eugene Police Department partnered with local school districts to provide the training. Through the Washington State Internet Crimes Against Children’s Taskforce, retired Detective Richard Wistocki of the Naperville Police Department addressed ways to prevent sextortion and cybercrimes.
But many students claim the presentation used fear shaming and victim blaming, and mainly suggested practices of abstinence.
4J Students Engage in Sex Ed Awareness
After seeing what they considered a failure by the school administration to provide adequate sexual education, South Eugene students started the Respect(Ed) club in 2015. The group is composed of student volunteers going into freshman and some upperclassmen classrooms, to give presentations on sexual health—focusing on sexuality and gender, the normalization of sexual violence, and consent and healthy relationships.
South Eugene senior and one of the Respect(Ed) leaders, Lane Mikkelsen, said they try to reach every health class three times with each one of their three presentations. Although their presentation includes PowerPoint slides, she said they try not to make their curriculum too lecture-based.
“We try and make it really interactive with activities where people can explore the topics we're talking about,” said Mikkelsen. “At the end, we leave space for anonymous questions. So if students aren't comfortable voicing questions that they have in front of the entire class, it gives them a different outlet to ask those to us, and then we try and answer them at the end to resolve any last questions.”
Fellow Respect(Ed) club member and South Eugene senior Ilka Sankari said Respect(Ed) volunteers are working to supplement a curriculum that is lacking, due to what she feels is a lack of concern. To that end, she thinks the current health standards across the country need to be better.
“I wish I had a good answer that didn't sound cynical, but I think that traditionally, [the] sex education curriculum has been really lacking across the board. We don't have any federal guidelines for it. We don't even require it to be medically accurate in all states. Less than half of the states in the US require sex ed to be medically accurate.”
Student’s Reactions to Wistocki
Four students who know each other through Respect(Ed) and Planned Parenthood’s REV are now speaking out about their experiences listening to Wistocki’s presentation on cyberbullying and sexting prevention.
Sankari said she re-watched the presentation online so she could use specific quotes that were especially troubling to her.
“One that I remember was, ‘Sometime you'll be in a situation where you're faced with having sex and hopefully you're choosing abstinence. But ladies, there's going to be times when your boyfriend's like, “I need a little something,” said Sankari quoting Wistocki. “Another quote, ‘Girls, you don't have to send those nasty pictures.’”
The students also said Wistocki’s examples included changing his voice in order to sound like a girl, and using phrases like, “Yo, mama” and “booty pics,” which they consider poorly aimed attempts at engaging young audiences because it made the serious matter of sextortion humorous.
Sankari said these words and phrases, as well as only using male, female examples, is not inclusive to LGBTQ students.
Wistocki Defends His Presentations
Richard Wistocki is a nationally-known speaker who has been giving presentations around the country about cyberbullying and sexting prevention for the last 10 years. He said this was the first time students have taken issue with his presentation.
When I spoke to him over the phone, I asked him to give an example within his presentation that is inclusive to LGBTQ students.
“I don't worry about that stuff. That doesn't concern me. It doesn't concern me because it doesn't matter. My job is to protect kids from being victims of online predators. If you’re a he, you're a she, you're an it, you’re a they—it doesn't matter. Predators go after kids. That's what matters. And it doesn't play a role in any of my presentations. And if they're offended, that's their problem.”
Wistocki said he’s more concerned with showing kids how predators go after them and how they should protect their digital footprint, since he said the average internet predator has up to 250 victims in their lifetime.
Students also said the presentation slut shamed women. By talking about how it is not okay for women to send revealing pictures, but when men do it, Churchill freshman Ethan Fodor said Wistocki suggested that it was not a big deal.
“He never once talked about anyone other than the woman in the relationship or the situation,” said Fodor. “There was never any talk of anyone else sending the pictures. And at Churchill, when one student asked about that at the end, he treated it like it wasn't a big deal. Like it wasn't something that was happening. It just wasn't a problem.”
But Wistocki said that is not true. He said his presenation teaches that there is not discrimination among sex predators because they target boys and girls equally.
Sankari said Wistocki also told stories that acted as cautionary tales about high school and college students who had multiple sexual and romantic partners, and sent pictures to multiple people. She recalled that he connected that to failures later in life, like not getting into colleges or medical programs.
Altogether, Mikkelsen compared the teaching style to some sexual assault trainings.
“A lot of it was putting the entire responsibility on the victim to stop potential harassment,” said Mikkelsen. “And I think it's really similar to the way some organizations teach about sexual assault. Like teaching how to not get raped, rather than how to not rape someone.”
At one point, Fodor said Wistocki used yelling tactics, and prompted students to yell “predator” back at him, in an attempt to engage students on how to interact with a potential internet predator. Mikkelsen thought his aggression was irresponsible for a presenter of such a sensitive subject.
“For a person who has actually been either sexstorted or just faced harassment online, it could be potentially very, very upsetting and triggering,” said Mikkelsen. “And once again, we were given basically no outlet to leave if it was uncomfortable for us.”
Wistocki defended his use of yelling as an approach that sticks with students.
According to Wistocki, he has taught at 16 schools across the country over the last two months. And in 10 of those schools, he said he has had 10 victims come forward as victims of sextortion. For that reason, Wistocki said, “I know 100% that what I'm doing is the right thing.”
Wistocki said he will not change his presentation because of the complaints. He said many Eugene high schoolers thanked him after the presentation.
“Some students came up to me and said, ‘I have a friend that's been going through this. I'm so glad you gave me the information.’ I had other students [say] that, ‘This is what me and my friends needed to hear. My parents told me the same thing, but I didn't believe them. Now I do.’”
Mikkelsen said she was speaking to a friend in REV who said older male presenters need to be sensitive when discussing the bodies of females—particularly minor’s bodies—when on stage in front of an entire school, and not be suggestive in the way women are supposed to behave in their bodies.
To add to the list of accusations claiming Wistocki gave a fear and shame based presentation that wasn’t inclusive, he also included religious references in his training.
Recalled Mikkelsen, “Basically, you're supposed to ask yourself, ‘Before I send this picture over Snapchat, if I showed it to my priest, my principal, and my parent, would they approve of it? So that's supposed to make sure that you're not sending nudes or anything risqué.”
The Oregon Department of Education’s guidelines state presenters on sex ed should not be abstinence only. And yet, Wistocki himself admits this is part of his message.
I asked, “Is your message promoting abstinence?”
“Absolutely,” responded Wistocki. “Teenagers shouldn't be involved in sex. It’s law that you can't consent until they're 17.”
Coming from the Midwest, he said he felt the culture difference while presenting in Eugene, and believes some students were very sensitive.
“I was in my third slide at one of the schools, and some kid is so ignorant, he gets up on my third slide and says, ‘You're as sexist as f***.’ In front of everybody. I'm like, what are you talking about? I didn’t even talk about sex yet. These are students who are very sensitive, and if the staff thought that they were too sensitive, they shouldn't have been there.”
Altogether, it does not sound like all students took offense. South Eugene senior and co-Respect(Ed) leader Sam Nystrom-Costales said he spoke to a perspectives advisor who mentioned that North Eugene High School and Sheldon High School had slightly better reactions.
“I don't know if this is a reflection of the fact that there were different presenters, but also, I think they actually changed the presentation a bit after they got feedback from our school,” said Nystrom-Costales.
Student’s Issues with Parent Presentation
Wistocki also provided a presentation to 4J parents. Nystrom-Costales said he watched it via livestream and was unhappy that the talk suggested that parents should spy on their kids.
“Like you need to have a monitoring software so that if they do something wrong, you know and they can’t lie to you.”
He said apps such as Snapchat have a ‘My Eyes Only’ setting, where people can send and like images only meant for specific people. Nystrom-Costales claims Wistocki was explaining ways parents could get their kids to admit that they had set up a ‘My Eyes Only’, in a manner he said almost seemed like coercion.
“He's like, ‘Okay, you're going to download Snapchat and you're going to open your memories. And as they're showing you how to use it, you're going to go, “What's this my eyes only [thing]?”
But Nystrom-Costales said he does not think this will foster a healthy relationship with kid’s parents.
“It is kind of upsetting to me because I think that you want to be able to have your kids trust you,” said Nystrom-Costales. “And that's the opposite of what this is doing. And I want to send out that message that these aren't the types of relationships that we need to be having with our parents.”
Sankari also talked to an employee of Sexual Assault Support Services of Lane County (SASS) who specializes in trafficking prevention and education. The SASS worker told Sankari that she attended Wistocki’s parent presentation, and pointed out that a lot of the language Wistocki used mirrored the language that traffickers say about their trafficking victims, such as, “ownership of your kids” and “spying on your kids” and “lying to your kids.”
Wistocki said he does not see a problem with his parent presentation either. He said parents are responsible for their kids until they are 18, including their technology.
“The frontal cortex of the child’s brain is not developed enough to handle what goes on in social networks,” said Wistocki. “The second thing that people have to understand is that there is no such thing as privacy for children because the parent is responsible for the child, and the child cannot handle what the social networks throw at them—like predators.”
He said his presentation encourages parents to have technology talks with their children so they are informed and know to go to their parents if they are being harassed. Wistocki said the amount of victimized children, and families of deceased teenagers that he works with, is why there can’t be a middle ground between policing children and giving them a certain amount of privacy.
Asking School District to Take Responsibility
This is not the first time the 4J district has hired a guest speaker who some students say has violated their rights. Last March, Dove Medical was invited to various high schools and middle schools in the district to discuss sexual education. But, students believed the presentation predominantly promoted abstinence-only, which is against ODE's rules.
As expressed in the ODE’s state guidelines for guest speakers on sexuality education, presentations from guest educators must be inclusive, and are not allowed to be shame and fear based.
ODE rules also state guest speakers need to be researched, vetted, and have all of their research materials approved. Which is why the students, such as Sankari, are frustrated with the school board member’s responses when they spoke at the last meeting in January.
“When the school board said, ‘This sounds like an honest mistake,’ I just can't believe that because Rich Wistocki, is nationally recognized, and if you do a quick Google search, you'll see his Ted Talk called, ‘Why you should spy on your kids’”, said Sankari. “So the materials were there, the schools knew who they were bringing in, and either they hadn't read the guidelines or they didn't care about breaking them.”
South Eugene student Nystrom-Costales created an online petition in response to the presentation, which asks the district to make a public apology for allowing Wistocki’s presentation, as well as provide a remedial one-hour training of cyberbullying and online sexual harassment by an educator who can address “the issues of intersectionality that are key to a proper health education,” cites the petition.
Three days after the petition was created in mid-January, it had received 165 signatures.
4J School District’s Response
When contacted about the student’s accusations against Wistocki and the district, 4J Chief of Communications Kerry Delf included these paragraphs in her email responses describing the situation.
“The district received reports that the presentation at South Eugene included some gendered examples and inapt language that were not a good fit for our community expectations,” wrote Delf. “We regret this and the distress it caused to some students. This feedback was immediately shared to the speaker to avoid repeating in later presentations. The district will continue to review our procedures for guest speakers to enrich and enhance students' education aligned with state standards.”
In another email from Delf, “‘Our Whole Lives’ is the Eugene School District's comprehensive human sexuality curriculum for middle and high school students, adopted in 2016. The district plans to undertake a full K–12 health curriculum adoption process soon that will include reviewing human sexuality curriculum.”
The Future of Sex Ed at 4J
Former Respect(Ed) students are working to turn their club into a nonprofit that would allow schools across the state, and potentially the country, to access their curriculum that focuses on sexual health education.
Nystrom-Costales said the petition will be online for the foreseeable future, and it is open to the public.