The Gaia Democratic School community is standing by its approach to sex education with a campaign called “Sex Ed Empowers YOUth!”, launched in response to the controversy earlier this year over the school’s field trip to a Minneapolis sex toy store.

Gaia faced strong backlash when its director, Starri Hedges, took students on a sex-education field trip to Smitten Kitten in May. A few parents pulled their children out of the school and demanded Hedges’ resignation.

Hedges did not back down. Now she’s pushing forward with a pro-sex-education campaign.

She’s asking for support on the Indiegogo crowdfunding website to help restore the school’s image. In pictures on social media, Gaia students and faculty hold up signs sharing the slogan “Sex Ed Empowers YOUth!” and “I stand with Gaia.”

“I need to speak out not just for Gaia and my own reputation, but also for other teachers and youth advocates who refuse to shame youth, who demand access to real sex ed,” she said in a recent e-mail.

The campaign is seeking $15,000 to support Gaia’s yearlong sex-education programming and help pay for student tuition costs. So far, it’s raised more than $1,800.

Ninety percent of students receive school subsidized scholarships, Hedges said.

“If we raise enough, we hope to also offer free classes to youth outside of the Gaia community,” she said.

The independent, private K-12 school of about 30 students is located inside the First Unitarian Society building on Mount Curve Avenue. Students have the freedom to come and go from classes and to select the activities they wish to participate in.

“Academic freedom includes the right to study subjects that are deemed controversial, complex or uncomfortable,” Hedges said. “It also includes topics that contribute to students’ empowerment and mental/physical health.”

Academic freedom is Hedges’ true passion, she said, and sex education goes along with that. Hedges has not only taught sex education, she’s seen the importance of it outside of school, she said. From 2005 to 2008, Hedges worked as a coordinator for HIV counseling and testing.

Hedges said she didn’t plan for Gaia to be known as the “pro real sex ed school,” but since news of the controversial field trip started an international conversation, she now wants to keep the discussion going.

“We knew we had to continue to publicly and proudly stand up for youth empowerment,” she said. “We are very committed to advocating for our students’ rights to access information.”

Hedges was not the only target of public scrutiny. The Smitten Kitten was investigated by city inspectors following the field trip to the Uptown shop. The city issued and then withdrew a citation against the shop.

After the field trip, Gaia released a statement defending the store.

The school has now changed its field trip policy to require that each trip be approved in advance by the school council.

A focus on inclusivity

Under the campaign, the school is promoting what it calls its scientific, holistic and consent-based sex education, which Hedges calls empowering and inclusive.

The idea of inclusivity in sex education has spawned a nationwide debate.

This year, the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are collaborating to advocate for more inclusive sex education for LGBTQ youth.

A good sex-education program is one that includes all young people, said Lynn Bretl, University of Minnesota school of public health instructor.

“A really critical component in sex education is making all the students in the classroom feel that the information is relative to them,” Bretl said.

Minnesota has no statewide standard for sex education. Districts decide their curriculum and are only required to offer education about sexually transmitted infections.

David Kurtzon, program manager at Teenwise Minnesota, said without a sex-education standard, there is much variation in what individual schools and school districts offer.

With new information about sex education constantly coming in, Hedges said, it’s important for students and parents to stay updated.

Gaia will show “Sex(ed): The Movie” on Tuesday during its “radical education” movie night. And Hedges will speak on a panel about the impact of sex education at Macalester College’s Annual International Roundtable on Oct. 10.

“The more we know about our own bodies, the more we value ourselves and make choices that reflect that value,” Hedges said.