Carroll board rejects AIDS film Many parents object, and superintendent pulls endorsement.

July 16, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

WESTMINSTER -- The Carroll County Board of Education rejected a videotape on AIDS yesterday in response to a vigorous campaign by a few hundred parents who threatened to pull their children from sex-education classes.

The opponents complained that the documentary, "Teen AIDS in Focus," promotes condom use, slights abstinence and includes a homosexual.

School officials maintained that they teach abstinence as the only sure way to avoid infection but that the documentary's young, middle-class victims and powerful message could make teens realize they are not invulnerable to the disease.

Although Superintendent R. Edward Shilling said he saw nothing wrong with the tape itself, he withdrew his endorsement and asked the board to reject it. The board complied, on a vote of 3 to 2.

"I'm very sorry they made that decision," said Dr. Janet Neslen, of the Carroll County Department of Health. The department had asked the board to approve the film for use by its AIDS case manager when she speaks to ninth-grade health classes.

"We thought this was an excellent film. There are people to whom the students could relate," Dr. Neslen said. When suburban students see films with older victims, especially those who are obviously homosexual or drug-users, she said, "They look at those people and say, 'That's not me.' "

Board President Cheryl A. McFalls and member Joseph D. Mish Jr. had intended to vote against the tape even before Mr. Shilling asked them. Board members Carolyn L. Scott and John D. Myers Jr., however, voted to approve the tape.

Ann M. Ballard, the swing vote on sex-related issues before the board, agreed with Mr. Shilling.

She said she voted against the tape "not because I am so offended by it, but because I don't want to see students pulled from a health class for 30 days because of this film. I felt it was more important for that child to sit in that class and get all the information."

Carroll County students must get signed permission slips to attend the sex-education units presented at each grade level.

Mr. Myers said he was disappointed, but not surprised, that the board gave in to pressure from what he said was a minority of parents. "We were polling 3 percent of our parent population when we made this decision," he said, referring to the 700 or so people who attended two screenings and filled out survey forms.

Mr. Shilling said "only 35 percent" of those who attended screenings felt the film met their standards for use in schools.

Mrs. Scott said she labored over her decision after Mr. Shilling told of the parents' threats to pull children out of the classes, but decided the film was worth it.

"That is the decision parents will have to make," she said before the vote.

"I think this video does well what it intends to do -- show teen-agers who are affected by this disease and to dispel the myth of their invulnerability," she said.

Mrs. Scott said she talked to many parents who support the video. But for the 70 minutes before the vote, one opponent after another walked to the microphone to argue the merits of abstinence over safe sex.

Only one woman and two high school students spoke in favor of the videotape.

Westminster High School senior Sean Kassim, 17, was often interrupted as he tried to tell the parents that regardless of their advice to teens, many will choose to have sex.

Jeri Eaton of Westminster was the only adult to speak in favor of the tape. She said she made documentaries and that their purpose was to take the viewer to a different place. "You touch people's hearts," she said, and spark discussion.

JoElla Manella of Westminster, who directs an anti-abortion pregnancy counseling center in Reisterstown, questioned the Health Department's commitment to abstinence and whether the schools should use the agency as a resource.

Dr. Neslen, who was not at the meeting, later stressed that the agency strongly promotes abstinence.

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