More Than 9 in 10 Attend Sex-Ed Pilot Program
Four percent of students opted out of a closely watched sex-education pilot program at six Montgomery County middle and high schools, the critical field test of a new curriculum that has put the school system at the center of a national debate on whether homosexuality should be taught in the classroom.
In total, 901 teens were offered the lessons over four weeks in health classes at Argyle, Julius West and Westland middle schools and Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Sherwood and Watkins Mill high schools.
The lessons, approved in January by the county school board, polarized the comparatively liberal Montgomery parent community. But with the launch of the pilot last month, attention shifted from the curriculum itself to whether large numbers of students would exercise their right to opt out.
Supporters said the final attendance figures, released by school officials last month, proved that the vast majority of parents approve teaching their teenage children about sexual orientation, transsexuality and “coming out.”
“I think these kids need as much information as possible,” said Melissa Reitkopp Schwartz, whose 10thgrade daughter attended pilot classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. “Because when kids make these kinds of decisions, we’re not there.”
Opponents mounted an intense campaign of letters, postcards and automated telephone calls to parents at the pilot schools before and during the lessons. PTA leaders fumed that the groups had used internal PTA directories to locate parents; protesters said there was no other way.
Amelia Rich-Remson opted her eighth-grade son out of the field test at Julius West in Rockville after conferring with a friend who had read the lessons. She said she’d rather have him be taught the dangers of drugs and keg parties than the nuances of human sexuality.
“I think he’s wa-a-a-ay too young,” she said. “I mean, he just turned 13. He sits on my lap. They’re just little kids.”
School officials said 821 students, or 91 percent of those enrolled, attended the field tests, which ended March 28. Forty-three children were absent or failed to return signed permission slips — required for participation — without explanation.
Leaders of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, the lead opposition group, noted that permission forms offered parents a box to check to opt in a child but none to opt out. Only parents who bothered to write “opt out” or “permission denied” on the form were counted as opt-outs.
The pilot program represents the school system’s first attempt to teach sexual orientation as a formal topic; under current practice, the subject is broached only in response to a student’s question.
Board members approved a new curriculum two years ago, but a federal judge struck it down, saying the lessons presented homosexuality as “a natural and morally correct lifestyle — to the exclusion of other perspectives.” U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. faulted passages that criticized some religious denominations as intolerant toward gays.
A rewritten curriculum, tightly scripted and stripped of religious reference, survived an initial appeal to State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who denied a request last month from opponents to halt the field tests, although she characterized arguments for and against the curriculum as “equally matched.” The lessons await formal review by the state school board this summer.
Eighth-grade lessons address myths about homosexuality and discuss tolerance, prejudice and stereotyping. Tenth-grade lessons delve into transsexuality and transgenderism and present fictional accounts of teens across the spectrum of gender identity; a separate high school lesson explains the correct use of a condom.
Hillary Goldman, daughter of Reitkopp Schwartz, said the threeday session at Bethesda-Chevy Chase covered material she’d learned in Hebrew school.
“It’s very neutral. We didn’t even talk that much about real-life situations,” said Goldman, 16. “I can’t believe it’s been in controversy for two years, because it seems like such a little thing to bother people about.”
Kimberly Smith, mother of a sophomore boy at Watkins Mill, found the 10th-grade lessons “tilted and weighted in a manner that made it obvious that there was an agenda there.” Like many who oppose the new curriculum, Smith believes it promotes homosexuality and offers little or no “support and respect for a traditional family unit.”
Smith wasn’t happy, either, with the alternative offered to her son and two others who opted out.
School officials developed alternate lessons with topics ranging from “Dealing With Negative Emotions” to safe driving and prudent spending.
Smith said her son was handed a packet, directed to a conference room and largely ignored during the three-day pilot, with no one leading the lessons and sometimes no adult supervision. Other Watkins Mill students offered similar accounts.
“They had a security guard unlock it. We would go in there and wait for the sub,” said Mandy Wright, a 16-year-old sophomore. She said the class was supervised about half the time.
School system spokesman Brian
Westland Middle Bethesda-Chevy Chase High
Watkins Mill High
148 Edwards said the alternate lessons are “thoroughly developed” and aligned to state curriculum. He said that a substitute teacher had arrived late for a Watkins Mill session but that students were supervised at all other times.
Students who attended the pilots said they were asked to complete evaluation forms and, in at least one case, to submit questions on 3-by-5 cards. Montgomery school board members pressed administrators to include such details when they complete a final report. They are con- cerned, for example, that teachers are generally forbidden to stray from the script to answer questions; students are instead directed to ask a trusted adult.
Goldman, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase student, said her teacher seemed “a bit restricted” but did her best to answer questions.
Ethan Dubin, a 15-year-old sophomore at Sherwood High, found portions of the lesson rather boring.
“It kind of has to be,” he said, “just so it won’t be offensive to any people.”