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'Legal question' prompts NDSU to freeze funds for sex ed program

North Dakota State University is backtracking on an earlier plan to use a federal grant to launch a new sexual education program with Planned Parenthood after a "legal question" raised concerns the plan would go against the wishes of the Legislature, President Dean Bresciani said.

The competitive $1.2 million grant, awarded in September to two professors after state officials turned down the money through the Affordable Care Act, was slated to be used to launch a three-year comprehensive sexual education program for Fargo-area teens beginning later this month.

The plan included a partnership with Planned Parenthood on a voluntary program teaching sexual education and adult life skills to teens ages 15 to 19 whose parents consented to their participation.

During an appearance on the Scott Hennen radio show Tuesday, Bresciani said there was a "lot of confusion" about what the program was designed to be, but added it was a "moot point" because it wasn't moving forward.

He said the plan seemed to be in compliance with state law and the intent of legislators, according to an initial legal analysis conducted by the Legislative Council. But later analysis in recent days "suggested that it is in conflict" with state laws.

"Whether technically or not, in my evaluation, it's not respecting the intent of our Legislature," he said. "And that's close enough to me. We're not looking for loopholes to work around our Legislature; we work in respect of our Legislature."

Bresciani said the recent discovery prompted him to freeze the funding. If the money can't be redirected appropriately, he said, it will be returned to the federal government.

"What we've found is a very specific codicil of the law that makes it clear that it cannot be with Planned Parenthood," he told Hennen. "And unless we can work around that, and again I'm not holding out hope on that, we'll have to go to the direction of returning the resources."

Bresciani was not available for further comment Wednesday.

NDSU nursing assistant professor Molly Secor-Turner declined to comment on the matter. The other grant winner, human development associate professor Brandy Randall, did not respond to a Wednesday afternoon request for comment.

NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel said she wasn't aware of the specific laws or legal questions that prompted university officials to freeze the funding in recent days.

"Right now, it's all just questions," she said. "But as soon as we realized there was a serious question, we froze the funds. We want to make sure we do what's right."

McDaniel said she wasn't sure about the timeline of any final decisions on the future of the program, including if the sexual education plans could move ahead with another organization or how the process of refusing the grant money would work.

In 2011, North Dakota lawmakers approved a law effective as of July 2012 that requires K-12 schools in the state to ensure any sexual health curriculum "includes instruction pertaining to the risks associated with adolescent sexual activity and the social, psychological, and physical health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity before and outside marriage."

However, the NDSU professors awarded this grant previously told The Forum that law wouldn't apply to their program because it was to be taught outside of the schools and only to those teens who voluntarily agreed to participate with parental consent.