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Protective Measures

County pilots revised sexual education program while parents and residents debate merits.

What’s big and green with latex all over?

In this case, it’s a cucumber getting sheathed in a condom in “Protect Yourself,” a video that was approved by the Montgomery County Board of Education last November for inclusion in a revised 10th-grade sexual education curriculum in Montgomery County Public Schools.

It replaces a health curriculum movie about contraception from 1970.

PTA parents at Churchill and Whitman say they have heard little opposition to the new curriculum. Parents from several other county high school clusters, however, have organized in opposition to the proposed curriculum, and a screening of “Protect Yourself” in Rockville on March 19 drew more than 200 people. On the Internet, dueling Web sites have rivaling takes on the curriculum.

Maryland state law mandates that public schools provide education on “family life and human sexuality,” though specifics are left to the discretion of county school boards.

County schools began production of a video on contraceptive use in 1999. Several subsequent revisions were reviewed by the county’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development, and in spring 2004, “Protect Yourself” was field tested at Montgomery Blair, James H. Blake and Northwest high schools.

PTA LEADERS at Churchill and Whitman say they’ve heard minimal opposition to the proposed curriculum among parents at their schools. “At [Churchill], it doesn’t seem to be a big deal,” said Sharon Bourke, a member and past president of Churchill’s PTA.

Parents have the right to review any instructional material in the county’s curriculum, according to the MCPS Web site. Students may not participate in the sex ed curriculum without signed permission from their parents or guardians, and those who opt out may enroll in alternative lessons or conduct independent studies of the students’ or parents’ choosing.

Bourke added that there are Churchill families who do not wish for their children to participate the program, but they don’t oppose its existence. “I think they’re fine with opting out,” Bourke said.

Ann Sablosky, president of Whitman’s PTA, said she has heard little in the way of opposition to the proposed curriculum. Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin sent the parents an e-mail about the curriculum, and said parents would have a chance to review all materials used before students begin taking the class next fall. “They’re allowed to opt out,” said Sablosky. “Nobody’s requiring anybody to do this.”

CITIZENS FOR A RESPONSIBLE Curriculum is an organization opposing the county’s sexual education curriculum. More than 200 people attended a Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum meeting which featured a viewing of “Protect Yourself” at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County campus in Rockville on Saturday, March 19.

Among the parents attending the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum viewing was Denise Schleckser of Potomac. A Cold Spring Elementary parent, Schleckser said she was disturbed by several aspects of “Protect Yourself.” She appreciated seeing the video begin with talking about abstinence, but felt that it became too much of a matter-of-fact “how-to” video.

“There’s just a sense that after viewing it … a teenager would feel that sexual activity is acceptable behavior and the norm,” Schleckser said. “The abstinence message was totally lost.”

Schleckser emphasized that she favors students receiving information on contraception. However, she also wants to see more explanation about the emotional, pregnancy and health risks involved with sexual behavior. “I think there’s a need for a more balanced perspective,” said Schleckser. “They need to hear about how being sexually active can affect your life permanently. … They need to show the girl that got pregnant and had to leave school.”

THE NEW CURRICULUM also includes a component on sexual orientation and gender roles that will be taught in eighth and 10th grades. Previously, county teachers were permitted to answer students’ questions about sexual orientation, but were not given prepared material on the subject.

“The revised curriculum defines terms such as gender identity, gender role, and sexual orientation and focuses on dispelling stereotypes and misconceptions on sexual orientation in an effort to diminish discrimination,” says the “Questions and Answers” section of the MCPS Web site.

Bourke feels that the addition is a matter of acknowledging what adults and students typically know in the first place. “Somebody has to be living in a cave not to be aware of the existence of [homosexuality],” Bourke said.

Schleckser said she is concerned about parental views on sexual orientation being at odds with what the schools will teach. “I am somewhat uncomfortable introducing homosexuality into the curriculum,” said Schleckser. “The curriculum describes homosexuality as one choice, as good as any other.”

THREE COUNTY HIGH SCHOOLS and three county middle schools are field-testing the new sex ed curriculum this spring. Parents, students and teachers at these six schools will then participate in an evaluation of the program, which will be sent on to the advisory committee, which decides on any further action in its recommend to the school board for implementing the program.

“I recognize the school board is performing a function,” said Schleckser. “That’s a very hard job, and I’m not saying the job is easy.”