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Teen Chastity in Santa Rosa Saying no to sex
Catholic Charities program promoting abstinence to be expanded with federal grant
By CLARK MASON The Bush administration’s commitment to birth control through abstinence has translated into a windfall for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, which will expand its chastity education programs with $362,000 in federal money.
The 2005 grant is part of a three-year commitment that will total more than $1 million and enable the charity to add staff and a bilingual component to the program, which urges teens to postpone sex until marriage.
Abstinence programs are not new, but funding for them has increased dramatically. Known as “chastity education” during the Reagan years, federal funding grew from $11 million in 1981 to $168 million this year.
The amount has grown steadily under President Bush, who wants to see the same amount spent on abstinence programs as on comprehensive sex education classes that feature safe sex information.
“With the continuing numbers we see with children earlier and earlier in life engaging in sexual activity and the consequences that come with that – both physical and mental, the risk of sexually transmitted disease and HIV – it seemed a reasonable goal to pursue,” said Bill Pierce, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The “Just Say No” approach to sex is one that is highly controversial. Supporters say it can prevent, or at least postpone, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
But critics say abstinence education needs to be coupled with comprehensive sex education to be effective.
Some studies suggest teens who pledge to remain virgins may avoid intercourse but are more likely to engage in other types of sex.
Pierce said there is some evidence abstinence programs contribute to postponing sex, but he acknowledged Monday that the verdict is still out on how well they work.
For the past five years, Santa Rosa’s Catholic Charities has received about $200,000 a year in federal funding for its “Free-to-Be” abstinence program, which helps train teenage volunteers to spread the message to peers in Sonoma County schools.
The increased funding for Free-to-Be will enable the program to continue adding staff along with bilingual materials.
“That’s why we’re able to hire new people, expand the program even more,” said Sue Bisbee, who founded the Santa Rosa abstinence program a dozen years ago.
With the expanded funding, Catholic Charities said 15,000 youths will be served over the next three years and 75 youths will participate as peer educators and mentors.
Along with abstinence, the interactive educational curricula and teen panels promote healthy relationships, good decision-making, goal-setting and avoiding alcohol.
But critics, such as Steve Fabian, an attorney and chairman of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said abstinence programs are not very effective.
He said children and teens need to be taught about contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted disease.
Fabian said abstinence classes essentially are teaching a religious viewpoint of what is acceptable and not acceptable.
The emphasis on abstinence is one of several Bush policies popular with religious conservatives. Also topping Bush’s agenda is a faith-based initiative that tries to open more government programs to religious groups.
“Under our current president, outsourcing of government responsibilities to religious groups has been a major attack on the separation of church and state,” Fabian said.
Planned Parenthood also has been generally critical of abstinence-only programs.
“Ideologically-driven programs that withhold the full range of health information do a grave disservice to young people and underestimate what they are faced with on a daily basis,” said Erin Kiernon, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Golden Gate.
But Bisbee said schoolchildren in Sonoma County do get details about contraception and safe sex from health department presentations in the classroom.
“We are a piece of the pie that students not only need to hear about, but want to hear about,” she said.
Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender said teens need to know how to protect themselves if they become sexually active, but also need to hear abstinence is an option.
Bender, who is on the advisory board of Free-to-Be, also is a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, which provides information on how to obtain birth control and abortion services.
“I just don’t want to get caught in the trap of ‘Kids are going to be sexually active, so we have to give them birth control,’ or ‘We can’t talk birth control,’ ” Bender said. “It’s not either-or. We have to give them every option.”
Sonoma County Public Health Officer Mary Maddux-Gonzales noted teen pregnancy rates nationwide have been declining. She credits both abstinence education and increased access to contraception as the likely factors.
She said teens need to hear both messages, and Free-to-Be has been “very tolerant of other viewpoints of other organizations.”
Maddux-Gonzales said young people in Sonoma County are hearing more than “Just Say No” to sex. The county Public Health Department made 500 presentations on contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases to a total of 10,000 students in junior high, high school and junior college during the past fiscal year.
She said that includes information on how to access clinics that provide birth control.
County Superintendent of Schools Carl Wong is comfortable with Free-To-Be presentations and said state law mandates that sex education for students also cover abstinence.
Free-to-Be’s message conforms to the Catholic Church’s position of no sexual activity outside marriage. But Wong said, “There’s no evidence linking it back to the Catholic Church or the teachings of the church position, other than it approaches the sexual activity of youth in the framework of healthy student lifestyle, personal and emotional health and of course maturity.”
Parents have the option of excluding their children from curriculum that delves into specific sex education such as contraception methods. Wong said teachers and principals “will continue to work very closely with parents and tailor elements of sex education curriculum so it is responsive and respectful of personal values. That could include religious values.”
Is a 50,000-volt shock too much?
By DEREK J. MOORE
When two Santa Rosa police officers arrived at a Fistor Drive home on Feb. 3, they found Anthony Ferrel in a shed sharpening the blade on a long knife.
What provoked police to act in the next chaotic moments is disputed. But the action they took is not. Officers shot Ferrel, 46, and his 15-year-old son, with electric stun guns known as Tasers before arresting them.
The Maria Carrillo High School sophomore was struck twice: once by electrified probes fired at close range from the 50,000-volt, pistol-like weapon, and again when the officer placed the Taser’s muzzle directly on the boy’s chest, causing him to collapse to the floor.
One of the metal probes, with a quarter-inch fishhook attached to it, penetrated the back of the boy’s head and was removed at a hospital, police said.
Taser use is increasingly common in Sonoma County, where most law enforcement agencies are buying dozens of the small stun guns and urging officers to use them before resorting to batons and other weapons.
Tasers “are preventing injuries to both suspects and police,” Sheriff Bill Cogbill said. “We’re noticing a reduction in injuries because you’re not having to go toe-to-toe with these people.”
But Amnesty International and other critics say more than 70 people have died in the United States and Canada after being hit by stun guns since 2001. They’ve called for an immediate moratorium pending safety studies and adoption of national standards, including rules for using Tasers on juveniles.
In Northern California, seven people have died since August after they were hit by Tasers, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Taser International, the Arizona company that manufactures the M26 and X26 models used by an estimated 5,000 police agencies nationwide, says all of the deaths were the result of drug overdoses, existing heart conditions or other factors, including exertion from running from the police.
Numerous lawsuits are pending against the company, including one filed Monday by the family of a Vallejo man who died after he was repeatedly shocked with a Taser. It accuses Taser International of knowingly marketing a dangerously defective weapon as safe and “nonlethal.”
Salinas police also are under scrutiny after a 40-year-old man died Feb. 20 after being shocked up to 10 times. The police department says autopsy results will show he succumbed to drug-related delirium.
Despite the controversy, many North Coast law enforcement agencies are pushing ahead with plans to buy Tasers.
In Mendocino County, Sheriff Tony Craver plans to meet with Taser International representatives this week in Ukiah to discuss purchasing up to $70,000 worth of Tasers, about 87 weapons to equip every deputy.
In Sonoma County, where the Sheriff’s Department has 27 Tasers and 50 more on order, Cogbill said the current controversy is being fueled by “special interest” groups such as Amnesty International and that medical evidence proves the weapons are safe.
Ed Flint, Santa Rosa’s police chief, also is a strong supporter of Tasers, and oversaw the purchase of an additional 32 of the weapons in December, bringing the total number to 98 for use by patrol and traffic officers.
Flint acknowledged that Tasers could “aggravate” an existing health problem in a person and cause injury. “But,” he added, “we could sit on somebody to bring them under control or use an impact weapon on them, or we could use pepper spray, and perhaps have a reaction or issue.”
Police credit use of the Taser for averting what they said could have been a deadly encounter in the Feb. 3 melee at the Fistor Drive home.
Anthony Ferrel, who was shocked several times with a Taser before being arrested, faces two misdemeanor charges, for resisting arrest and for assaulting an officer.
Officers “definitely had the option to use deadly force and chose not to,” said Lt. Brian Davis, who reviewed the incident. “They chose instead to put themselves in a confrontation with someone who had a knife. They used all the tools available to them to stop the combative person from resisting and took him into custody appropriately.”
But the Ferrel family claims police used excessive force and have contacted an attorney.
“He’s really traumatized by it,” Evelyn Ferrel said of her 15-year-old son. “We’re trying not to talk about it too much. That’s why he’s going through counseling for it.”
The growing reliance on Tasers among Sonoma County law enforcement agencies as a “less-than-lethal” alternative to guns and other weapons comes at a time when they are under increased scrutiny nationwide.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation two weeks ago to require California law enforcement agencies to track Taser use, establish a state medical research program and ban Taser sales to private citizens.
At the same time, experts sat down for a two-day forum in Arlington, Va., to discuss the medical, technological, safety and policy issues surrounding Tasers. And the International Association of Chiefs of Police is working on a briefing paper detailing strategies for Taser use.
Public outcry over a 6-year-old being hit with Taser darts when he refused to drop a piece of glass led Florida’s Miami-Dade County Police Department to rewrite its policy to include more exact language on when to use the weapons.
Chicago’s Police Department shelved plans to purchase 100 more Tasers after a 54-year-old man died and a 14-year-old boy went into cardiac arrest after being hit by the darts three weeks ago.
Variety of uses
Sonoma County, recent cases involving Tasers demonstrate their wide use in a variety of situations – from a suicidal man to a foot pursuit that ultimately resulted in deadly force.
Sheriff’s deputies used a Taser on Feb. 21 to stop a man who had barricaded himself in his room after consuming large amounts of vodka and was threatening suicide with a butcher knife, according to a sheriff’s report.
Deputies shot the man with Taser probes after he raised the knife above his head and threatened to plunge the blade into his stomach. The electric current caused the man to roll onto his back, allowing deputies to yank the knife away and take him into custody, the report stated.
In another high-profile incident, a Rohnert Park police officer used his pistol to shoot and kill an armed man Jan. 28 after firing his Taser at the fleeing suspect. It’s unclear if the probes struck the man or missed, police said.
Police say many suspects will give up at seeing the red laser dot emitted by the Taser on their body or when the trigger is pulled in the “touch” mode, which illuminates the arcing currents and makes a loud noise.
Amnesty International says police agencies are sometimes too quick to use Tasers and has documented cases in which the weapons were used to get people into police cars faster or speed up the booking process.
In one instance witnessed by reporters Tuesday in Old Courthouse Square, a Santa Rosa police officer activated his Taser in a confrontation with a man who already was handcuffed and seated in a police car.
The man, who wore Army fatigues, had been taken into custody after allegedly telling people that he wanted a gun to shoot firefighters.
Seated inside the car, the man continued to struggle, kicking at the door with his feet. One of the officers, after telling the man to “shut up,” unholstered his Taser and pulled the trigger, illuminating the electrical currents.
The man continued to struggle, rocking the car with his body even after the officers shut the doors and drove away. He was taken to county mental health, police said.
Sgt. Clay Van Artsdalen, who oversees Taser training for the department, said the officers followed policy.
“I think the officer was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this guy to calm down and quit kicking the door,'” Van Artsdalen said.
With increased Taser use, Steve Fabian, a county public defender and chairman of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said a death or serious injury could happen here.
“One day they’re going to pick a person with a bad heart or who’s under the influence of drugs and it’s going to have tragic effects,” Fabian said. “Knowing that risk is there, it’s important to have a real good protocol when these weapons are used.”
He said Tasers should be classified as deadly weapons and used only in situations where a person’s life is in immediate danger – not to subdue uncooperative suspects, as is the practice in many cases.
The local chapter of the ACLU is asking law enforcement agencies to document and review every Taser use – which some already do – and make that information available to the public. Fabian said the organization isn’t asking for a moratorium or an outright ban, however, as some human-rights organizations have proposed.
“A Taser would obviously be preferable to use versus a gun, but it’s just very important how they’re used,” Fabian said. “Their use should be restricted to when they (police) would otherwise be authorized to use a deadly weapon.”
Some law enforcement officials see hypocrisy in calls to ban or restrict Tasers, saying the calls are coming from some of the same groups that encouraged departments to find alternatives to lethal force.
Following a spate of shootings in the 1990s, many Sonoma County police agencies bought beanbag shotguns and Tasers and added training courses focused on how to deal with emotionally disturbed or mentally ill people.
Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa Junior College police added Tasers to their arsenals after three officers shot and killed Todd Dieterle in May 2000 after he robbed a market with what turned out to be a toy gun.
Option to lethal force
Officials now are having to defend the use of these less-than-lethal options.
“You have people being sued for a beanbag,” said Terry Stewart, the college’s police chief. “It really boils down to having another tool that hopefully will prevent people from getting killed.”
In Sonoma County, law enforcement agencies don’t have standard guidelines governing Tasers. Most closely follow training guidelines recommended by Taser International. But departments are free to tailor these recommendations as they see fit.
Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies, for instance, are taught that Tasers shouldn’t be used on juveniles, pregnant women and the elderly except in extreme situations, Sheriff’s Lt. Roger Rude said.
Santa Rosa police, on the other hand, don’t have such specific instructions, Van Artsdalen said.
“We teach them to use their best judgment,” he said.
The policy manual for police refers to Tasers as “medium level” force options alongside such other weapons as pepper spray or batons. The sheriff’s manual notes that the Taser “is considered to be a force similar to that of pepper spray, yet less than that of a baton strike.”
In general, officers and deputies can use “reasonable force” – which includes a Taser – to take a person into custody so long as that force can be justified.
One misconception, Rude said, is that deputies must exhaust one force option before going to another.
“It’s not that you have to climb this ladder, that you first have to yell, then use your hand, then use pepper spray. … You can go from point A to Z in a heartbeat,” he said.
He said that if Tasers were re-classified as deadly weapons and their use restricted, the potential for problems would increase.
“I can safely say we’d have more complaints, we’d have more lawsuits, we’d have more officers injured in the line of duty and we’d have more suspects seriously injured,” he said. “I can take you into custody with a baton or a Taser. The next day you’d much prefer me to take you into custody with a Taser.”
Bills aim to tweak Megan’s Law
Adding offenders’ conviction dates among changes
By RANDI ROSSMAN
More details about registered sex offenders would be made public under three new measures by the legislative sponsor of the state’s Megan’s Law Web site.
Assemblywoman Nicole Parra said she almost immediately began hearing that the state didn’t provide enough information to assess the risk posed by the 63,500 people listed on the Internet.
In response, Parra, D-Hanford, introduced a bill to add the conviction date to information that now includes names, pictures, criminal offenses and in many cases addresses.
Police, victims groups and even some registered sex offenders have said adding conviction dates would help users of the Web site, which has had more than 70 million visitors since it went online in mid-December.
Many states already list conviction dates and even official assessments of the risk posed by each offender.
Detectives frequently hear about the California Web site’s lack of a conviction date.
“It’s one of the biggest questions we get,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jon Fehlman, who oversees the sex crimes unit.
“You don’t know if this case is 30 years old and the person has never done anything again, or if they’re on parole and it was three years ago,” he said.
There are more than 600 registered sex offenders living in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties who are listed on the state Web site, www.meganslaw.ca.gov.
Parra, who carried the legislation that created the Web site, is proposing two other bills that would make changes to the 2004 law.
One prompted by concerns from the real estate industry would require quick removal of incorrect addresses once the state received notification from a residential property owner.
The state Justice Department, which maintains the Web site, believes as many as 20 percent of offenders are out of compliance with the registration law. For some, that means they’ve moved and the address is wrong, but for others, the address is correct and the offender just failed to re-register.
The other change would require registered offenders to notify law enforcement about a change in address in person or by certified or registered mail. Currently, offenders must inform local agencies in person or by mail.
“These three bills are to make Megan’s Law as strong as possible,” Parra said Wednesday.
Fehlman wasn’t surprised by the proposed changes. “It’s so new they’re still working out the kinks,” he said.
Civil liberties groups opposed the Web site legislation last year and said the proposed changes could backfire, driving more sex offenders underground.
“I don’t think it protects anyone,” said Steve Fabian, a deputy public defender and a spokesman for Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It will lead to more and more cases of people just saying, ‘I can’t register because I can’t get work and I can’t live a life.'”