Las Vegas Sun

July 23, 2014

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Metro says ‘Purity’ event for young girls not just about abstinence

Click to enlarge photo

A flier for an event sponsored by Metro Police and other community groups is shown.

After a wide backlash, Metro Police is now saying the “Choose Purity” event it co-sponsored last weekend in North Las Vegas linking premarital sex with death wasn’t about mortality, or even just sex, for that matter.

The much maligned event was the brainchild of Metro Officer Regina Coward, who said she pitched the event to her Bolden Area Command after her church — Victory Outreach Church of Summerlin — asked her to create an event in the community to go along with its purity message.

Despite being the event’s creator, Coward wasn’t the authority on the event’s goals, according to Lt. Kelly McMahill.

The roughly 125 parents and children who attended “Choose Purity” at the William Pearson Community Center on Saturday weren’t supposed to walk away thinking premarital sex was linked to the devastating effects of hard drugs, the horrors of human trafficking or the untimely teen deaths depicted by the event’s speakers, according to Coward’s supervisors.

McMahill, Capt. William Scott and Sgt. Ivan Chatman were not sure why Coward told the Sun the event's theme was dissuading teens from premarital sex.

Coward’s supervisors were firm that “Choose Purity” didn’t intend to send a message to young girls that having premarital sex meant risking death.

“[The Sun] talked to one individual — and Regina’s a great cop — but understand she had two roles that day, too,” McMahill said.

Scott speculated that perhaps some people are better at compartmentalizing.

“Maybe she’s such a caring person that maybe the church part of it overrode the law enforcement part of it,” Scott said. “She’s only human.”

Several speakers didn’t address premarital sex and Metro didn’t control the message the church was relaying, McMahill said. Metro just wanted to give girls a resource if they chose abstinence, she said. The event was paid for by donations of community organizations, and Metro, despite sponsoring the event, spent no money on it.

These kinds of community events are done on officers' own time, Chatman said, calling the event "a labor of love."

The press release for the event emblazoned with the sheriff's insignia was headlined “Bolden Area Command and Victory Outreach Church Team Up to Tackle Teen Pregnancy.”

And, according to the release, the goal was “to bring about awareness to the problem of teen pregnancy and the long-term consequences ... Event organizers are hoping to get attendees to make a commitment to sexual abstinence until marriage.”

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Event organizer Regina Coward speaks Saturday, May 3, 2014, during the Metro Police co-sponsored “Choose Purity” event at the William Pearson Center in North Las Vegas.

Laura Deitsch, who was a health educator for a local reproductive health organization for more than a dozen years and attended the event, said the language throughout the event suggested that everything tied back to sex and, in particular, a push for abstinence.

"It's not like there's a wait until you're married to do heroin," Deitsch said. "It was about saving yourself, and I've never heard about someone trying to save themselves from heroin or trafficking."

Deitsch said there appeared to be an overwhelming theme of death, and if not death then, perhaps, tragedy.

“To me there was a link between stay pure or face tragedy," Deitsch said.

McMahill said the overall goal was to empower young girls.

Chatman said if he had to pick a theme it would be to help girls make better choices.

The event was a more ambitious community function than the area command had done in the past, putting them in uncharted waters, he said.

The community events are part of the area command’s efforts to police proactively, by working with faith-based and other groups, Scott said. The West Las Vegas area that makes up his area command has historically known violence and has unique challenges, Scott said. Having officers work with the public in ways that some might see as unusual, like the “Choose Purity” event, is part of building community trust, he said.

The issues handled at the event are issues the girls in his community face, he said. While sex doesn’t always relate to drugs, girls will sell their bodies to get drugs, Scott said.

The idea that bombarding teens with messages about sex combined with information about trafficking, drugs and death was appropriate because of the area didn’t make sense to Melva Thompson-Robinson, associate professor at UNLV and project director for the Southern Nevada Teen Pregnancy Prevention Project, which aims to provide comprehensive sex education to teens by working with the African-American faith-based community.

Thompson-Robinson knows that community through her project’s prevention efforts and works with churches in that area, Thompson-Robinson said. In fact, her group taught a sex education class for parents on the same day as the “Choose Purity” event just down the road, she said.

Thompson-Robinson said young girls do have sex to buy drugs, but that isn’t an across-the-board problem, even in that community.

"We have girls in our community who are having babies because they want somebody who will love them because they are in homes where there is no love," Thompson-Robinson gave as an example.

Thompson-Robinson said her organization only uses evidence-based tactics to avoid conflating emotions surrounding an issue with the facts, noting she speculated that perhaps Metro had become wrapped up in the crime it sees daily, thus painting a skewed picture.

Thompson-Robinson said the consensus she got from her colleagues in public health was people wondered why Metro was engaging in public health work and how the officers would feel if public health employees tried to do police work.

"[Metro] could do some damage that has to be undone," Thompson-Robinson said. "It's like if us public health people were now responding to accidents."

Representatives from the Southern Nevada Health District were on hand to offer testing and condoms, but didn’t present at the event. Chatman said they were there so girls could have private one-on-one conversations to address their specific questions.

Laura Martin, communications director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, also expressed hope that Metro would ask public health workers to present next time.

After the event PLAN sent out a release condemning the event as feeding into rape culture.

"I think Metro should partner with community organizations, especially faith-based organizations, but Metro shouldn't take the role of the faith leader," Martin said. "They were just muddling too many messages."

Coward will still be organizing the next event, “Choose Courage,” which will be aimed at boys.

Chatman said they’ll continue to work to improve the events and might scale back the number of issues they tackle.

“This is the first time we’ve done an event like this,” Chatman said. “Will we get better at this? Absolutely.”

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