Howard officials face sex education challenge

February 18, 1991|By Lynda Robinson

If Charlie Scott and other student leaders were writing Howard County's new sex education curriculum, they would bring condoms into the classrooms and show 11th- and 12th-graders how to use them.

If Barbara Adams and other conservative parents were in charge, they would urge students to practice the only foolproof and, in their view, moral method of birth control -- holding onto their virginity until they get married.

The gulf between the calls for contraceptive kits and abstinence demonstrates the challenge facing Howard school administrators as they draft a new sex education curriculum for ninth graders.

In a county with the highest teen-age abortion rate in Maryland, everyone agrees on the need to prevent teen pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But no one agrees on how.

"It is a very emotional and difficult subject," says Joan Palmer, Howard's associate superintendent for curriculum and supervision.

"I don't think there's anyone in the system who doesn't wish we didn't have to teach this."

Looking at the state's statistics on teen-age mothers, it would be easy to conclude that Howard has largely escaped the problem of teen-age pregnancy.

In 1988, the most recent year for which statistics are available, only 34 girls under the age of 18 gave birth to babies -- the lowest number of any major jurisdiction in Maryland.

But at least 89 more girls had abortions, giving Howard the highest ratio of teen-age abortions to live births in the state.

"It shows an obvious need for prevention," says Nancy Hudson, health educator with the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.

Although Howard has been teaching sex education since 1972, the school system's effort to revise and update its curriculum has revived debate about how much information high school students should be given about contraception and in what context.

Ninth-graders already learn about the variety and effectiveness of birth control methods during 14 classes on family life and human sexuality.

The new curriculum, scheduled for school board approval on April 25, will be condensed into eight lessons and emphasize the skills needed to make decisions about sex and birth control, says Helen Stemler, Howard's supervisor of health education.

One proposed lesson, for instance, focuses on ways to resist the pressure to have sex. Another asks students to list the advantages and disadvantages of 10 different methods of birth control.

The school system insists it tries to discourage students from having sex, which can put young people at risk for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

But conservative parents, who have organized into a group called Concerned Citizens of Howard County, believe the county undercuts its call for abstinence by giving ninth-graders information about birth control.

"The unwritten thinking behind the curriculum is that they're going to have sex anyway so we'd better teach them about preventing pregnancy and disease," says Thomas R. Winings, a Mormon bishop who lives in Ellicott City.

Mrs. Adams, a Columbia mother of five, says the school system's message about sex should be as unequivocal as its message about drinking and drugs. "We tell them don't drink," she says. "We don't tell them don't drink, but if you want to, here's how to do it safely. We need to do the same thing with sex."

Their view isn't shared by representatives of the Howard County Association of Student Councils, which supported a resolution last week to use contraceptive kits to teach juniors and seniors about birth control. The kits would allow students to handle condoms and other forms of birth control and learn how to use them properly.

"We think more needs to be taught about contraception," says Charlie Scott, a 17-year-old senior at Wilde Lake High School who serves as the student representative on the school board.

Most students aren't sexually active yet when they learn about birth control in ninth grade, Mr. Scott says.

He and other student leaders would like to see more detailed instruction about birth control repeated in 11th and 12th grades, when many students are becoming sexually active and need the information.

Jean Lewis, a Columbia mother of two, also thinks juniors and seniors need additional information about birth control.

But she supports the proposed curriculum for ninth-graders and suspects many other parents feel the same way. "Those of us who are for it are not as loud as those who are against it," she said.

"This is a good curriculum for today's students in today's world."

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