Responding to pressure from conservative parent groups, the Howard County school board unanimously approved a revised sex education course for ninth-graders last night that strongly advocates sexual abstinence for teen-agers.
The revised curriculum, which will be introduced next year, also encourages sexually active teen-agers to reconsider abstinence -- a so-called second virginity.
Despite the reservations of some parents, the optional family life and human sexuality course will teach teen-agers about contraception and the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and other sexually transmitted diseases. But the emphasis on abstinence and parental participation satisfied the most vocal critics of the curriculum.
The themes emphasized in the course are relationships, communication about sexual behavior, resistance skill behavior, family planning, pregnancy, parenthood and date rape.
School board Chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig thanked the curriculum's authors for addressing the community's concerns.
Dana F. Hanna, vice chairman, said the effort to involve parents was thorough and far-reaching.
Teachers are instructed to invite parents to a meeting before the class begins to discuss its content and objectives. Students are given exercises to complete at home that are designed to draw parents into dialogue.
"I read into this loud and clear the role of parental participation, which elicits family interaction," Mr. Hanna said.
Helen Stemmler, supervisor for health education, warned that the course provides "no magic bullet" to solve the problem of teen pregnancy in a county that has the state's highest teen-age abortion rate. She urged parents, community groups and churches to work with the school system on education and pregnancy prevention.
"We are in a partnership with the community, and we'd better find ways to work together," she said.
The overhaul of the sex education course revived a long-running debate in the suburban community over how family life and human sexuality should be taught.
Conservative parents, who organized as a group called Concerned Citizens of Howard County, won a major battle when the revised curriculum took the position that "the philosophical basis for this unit promotes abstention from sexual activity as the healthiest option for teen-agers."
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said before last night's meeting meeting that the changes "meet most of the concerns of every interest group."
Thomas R. Winings, a Mormon bishop who lives in Ellicott City and reviewed the curriculum as a member of the school system's health council, said the modifications are "a significant improvement" over what was initially proposed, though he still had some reservations.
"They have increased the emphasis on the importance of abstention, which is good, and are not treating sexuality strictly as a physical phenomenon, but more as a function of the whole person," Mr. Winings said. "They are also encouraging dialogue between parents and children, which is also good."
However, Mr. Winings said he had some concerns about some of the exercises proposed.
"They appear to be a situation ethics kind of thing," he said. "I think the questions should be addressed that cause students to reflect on their core values, which truly drive behavior. Hopefully, their decisions then will be based on deep-rooted, moral family values."