More Than 9 in 10 At­tend Sex-Ed Pilot Pro­gram

The Washington Post Sunday - - Virginia - By Daniel de Vise

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

Ar­gyle Mid­dle

West Mid­dle

West­land Mid­dle Bethesda-Chevy Chase High

Sher­wood 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.”

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