Sex-education Curriculum Plan Unleashes Firestorm

February 10, 1991|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

Ninth-graders in county schools will learn not enough, about the right amount or too much about sex -- depending on one's viewpoint -- under proposed changes to the Family Life and Human Sexuality curriculum.

The revised course of study for ninth-graders drew sharp criticism from conservatives after draft versions began circulating throughthe community last month -- to the dismay of school officials who wanted to keep the proposed curriculum under wraps until the final version was written.

Those critics charge that the curriculum overemphasizes birth control information while barely giving a nod to abstinence. Other targets of criticism: failure to say that rape is a crime and leaving out seeking help from parents in the section on date rape; coeducationalclasses; and too much emphasis on physical intimacy.

Supporters of the revisions counter that sexually active students need information to enable them to avoid venereal diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

"Although we would like our young people to be celibate, the reality is that many aren't," school health programs supervisor Helen M. Stemler told the school board last month while seeking approval for the curriculum changes. The board returned the document for revisions.

Stemler quoted a Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy report showing that in 1988, the most recent year for which statistics areavailable, Howard County had the highest teen abortion rate in Maryland. Of 287 pregnancies among county teen-agers, 178 were aborted.

One target of wide criticism was a "physical intimacy scale" that put "no physical touch" and "sexual intercourse" at opposite ends of a line that designates "steps along the way."

The scale is being withdrawn and will be replaced with one that has more emotional content,Stemler said. She said the physical scale was supposed to be an optional resource for teachers in the eight-day family life program. Teachers may choose only from the resources on the approved list.

Jan Yanero, a parent who chaired a four-member committee that reviewed the draft curriculum for Mount Hebron High School, said the group feltoverall that the new course of study is "very powerful and very good."

But, Yanero said, she and other committee members were uncomfortable with the physical intimacy scale. "With kids, it's almost like,'This is my guide,' " she said.

Jean Lewis, parent of one Centennial High School senior and one Centennial graduate, said her school'sreview group endorsed the new curriculum as "excellent."

"I'm a religious person and my children still attend Sunday school, but I cansee the need for this information," she said. "I don't know what theobjection is, but I don't think this would make students want to be sexually active."

In addition to reviews by high school parents and teacher committees, the proposed curriculum changes came under the scrutiny of the countywide school health advisory council, which represents a wide range of viewpoints from the community.

"A lot of people say it is too explicit," said advisory council member Thomas R. Winings, bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints inEllicott City. "We're teaching kids at too young an age, who don't need to know that, and in mixed (groups of) boys and girls."

The Mormon bishop faults the curriculum for a lack of reverence for life, which he said can be taught without crossing the constitutional barrier between church and state.

But Stemler countered that "the schools cannot make a statement on the moral value of intercourse other than from a public health standpoint. . . . We cannot get into one religion over another."

Winings outlined four concerns in a letter to the school board: a lack of emphasis on abstention; the curriculum's being "strictly a course in sex education with primary emphasis on prevention of pregnancy and disease"; a failure to list parents and clergy as sources of help for date-rape victims; and a focus on "negativeaspects of sexuality -- date rape, deciding to have sex or not have sex, how to prevent pregnancy through contraception."

Advisory council member Rosemary E. S. Mortimer, PTA Council president and a specialist in maternity nursing on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University, agrees that abstinence should be emphasized but wants teen-agers to have facts about birth control.

"I think it's imperative that they be given the information, not just about birth control but about sexually transmitted diseases, which I am now seeing (professionally) as more of a problem than pregnancy," she said.

Advisory council member Barbara Adams, who represents a group of approximately 70 conservative Christian women informally organized as the Concerned Citizens of Howard County, is worried that students are learning too many facts.

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