By Katie Rusch
High fives were common in Seattle & King County Public Health’s Family Planning division this week. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) illegally terminated a sex education grant King County was using to study the effectiveness of its FLASH curriculum.
Developed by Seattle & King County Public Health, FLASH has been the primary sex education program used by public schools in King County since it was developed here in the 1980s. Beyond all school districts in King County, the science-based program is used in 44 other states. While, anecdotally, King County program officials have had significant positive public feedback on the curriculum, the organization never had the opportunity to gather data to support their theories that FLASH reduces teen pregnancy and STD rates.
In 2015 that changed. As part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPP), Seattle & King County Public Health was awarded a five-year $5 million grant to study FLASH’s effectiveness. But in 2017, HHS decided to cut King County’s funding two years early, along with the funding to 80 others who received TPP Program grants. Their funding was set to end on June 30.
In February, 10 of those organizations (including King County) filed four seperate lawsuits against the federal government claiming the early termination was illegal.
“We’ve invested three years of taxpayer dollars and resources,” said Heather Maisen, of the Seattle King County Family Planning program. “It would have been three years wasted and promises broken.”
The FLASH curriculum is currently being studied in 20 schools in Minnesota and Georgia. That data could then be used by school boards across the country to help members decide whether or not to use FLASH.
Tuesday’s ruling delivered the fourth and final victory for the organizations suing HHS. Favorable rulings for the other plaintiffs came down in April.
In his ruling issued Tuesday, Judge John Coughenour referenced the three other previous decisions noting that HHS has “attempted to convince multiple courts of their position with no success” while ruling in favor of King County.
“This ruling is such a relief,” said Patty Hayes, the director of Public Health for Seattle & King County. “Our goal with FLASH is to improve the quality of what happens in classrooms across the nation and to protect our most vulnerable youth.”
Judge Coughenour added in his ruling that “HHS failed to articulate a satisfactory explanation for its decision to shorten King County’s project period. In fact, HHS never gave King County an explanation.”
In an August news release, HHS suggested “73 percent [of TPP grantees] either had no impact or had a negative impact on teen behavior,” but provided no proof. HHS has yet to not respond to Seattle Weekly’s repeated requests for comment on the issue.
While Tuesday’s court ruling doesn’t force the federal government to hand over the remainder of King County’s grant, it makes it more difficult for HHS to withhold the money. To end the funding, HHS would have to show King County violated the terms of the grant agreement.
Maisen said she sees no reason the funding won’t come this year calling the victory a “huge hurdle,” but not the “final hurdle.”
This case was just one of the Trump administration’s attempts to remove money from evidence-based sex education programs. Since 2015, funding for sex-education programs that promote abstinence-only or “sexual-risk avoidance” curriculums has increased by $45 million. If HHS succeeds in moving $110 million Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program dollars to these programs—something they alluded to in April—that would more than double the increase.
Maisen knows there is a “long road forward,” but she says this latest legal victory proves King County is on the right path to help the people that FLASH is really all about—the kids. “Our youth in this country are now going to be given access to information that is critical to the outcome of their health and their future goals.”