Focus in AIDS video debate centers on swing vote School board's Ballard considered key to Wednesday vote

July 12, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

The Board of Education never gets more attention than when it talks about sex.

And no one on the board gets more attention than Ann M. Ballard, who has been targeted as the swing vote in such matters.

"They all look at me when there's a vote. It's an awkward position to be in," she said.

After receiving dozens of calls, letters, postcards and comments on the street, Mrs. Ballard says she has more or less reached a decision on whether to approve a controversial videotape at the board's meeting Wednesday.

But she isn't saying how she'll vote.

"It's going to be my decision on what I feel is best for all the children of Carroll County," she said. "It really is an awesome burden, because I take these things seriously."

The nine-minute documentary, "Teen AIDS in Focus," would be used by Health Department speakers in ninth-grade health classes. While some parents and staff have praised it as powerful in showing real teens who have AIDS, the more vocal opponents have complained that it mentions safe sex too often and doesn't say enough about abstinence as the only sure way to avoid infection.

Mrs. Ballard has come to be the swing vote because the other four members have a more established pattern. President Cheryl A. McFalls and member Joseph D. Mish Jr. usually vote conservatively on sex-education matters, even if such a stance goes against the staff's recommendation.

Members John D. Meyers Jr. and Carolyn L. Scott usually favor more information for students. They also usually say they rely on the integrity of staff and screening committees that review sex-education materials before they get to the board.

Mr. Meyers said he expects to vote for the tape, but Mrs. Scott said she will not reveal her decision before the board meeting.

Mrs. Ballard has been less predictable. At the last meeting, for example, she voted for a videotape for sixth-graders to which Mrs. McFalls and Mr. Mish objected.

In the very next vote, however, she joined them in opposing an information card that would have been distributed to students, because one of the phone numbers listed was for Planned

Parenthood, which provides abortions.

Mrs. Ballard showed the AIDS film to her 16-year-old son to get his perspective on whether it promoted safe sex or abstinence.

Neither of those issues affected him as much as the realization that the teens in the film were dying, she said.

"He said, 'It really gives you something to think about,' " Mrs. Ballard said. "He said, 'Well, it really scared me to think you can die.' My son's a lifeguard, and one of those boys [in the film] looked like a lifeguard."

Two public screenings have drawn more than 700 people, many of whom said they opposed the tape. But most board members said they have been getting at least as many positive comments about the film.

They also say their decision will not be a public referendum: Each member will vote her or his conscience, they said during individual telephone interviews.

Mrs. Ballard has been getting most of the comments. She went to a wedding a week ago and the AIDS video was the main topic of conversation at her table. The same thing happened at a swim meet, and again at a flower shop.

The florist told her, "The more education you give that girl of mine, the better," she said.

Mrs. Ballard, Mr. Meyers and Mrs. Scott said most of the comments they have gotten have been in favor of the videotape.

Mr. Mish and Mrs. McFalls said they have gotten mostly negative responses. All the board members agreed that parents probably call the member they feel will agree with them, and the ones most likely to go to the screenings are the ones who would oppose it.

In Mrs. Ballard's case, a few people have asked to meet with her privately, and she has resisted. "It's kind of like a lobbying effect," she said.

She said the board will get to read the surveys parents filled out at the screenings.

Mr. Mish acknowledged that some letters and the large turnout of opponents at the screenings was orchestrated, but said he'd vote against the tape anyway. The only way he would approve it, he said, would be if the "safe sex" comments could be edited out.

The other comment he didn't like was when a gay man in the film says that the gay community is probably safer from AIDS than are heterosexuals.

Mr. Mish said he knows the man meant that homosexuals, because the disease appeared among them first, have become more educated about prevention. But he said ninth-graders take things literally, and may misconstrue the statement to mean that heterosexuals are more likely to get AIDS than homosexuals.

Mrs. McFalls said she opposes the tape and was ready to vote against it last month, on two counts -- the references to "safe sex" and the inclusion of a homosexual man talking to students.

She said she doesn't believe the community that elected her wants homosexuals to speak to classes, either in person or on video. She did not say why, however.

"I have not asked them that question," she said.

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