County Council president demands end to performances of sex-education play AIDS VIDEO DISPUTE

December 20, 1992|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer Staff writer Sherrie Ruhl contribute to this article.

Stop performances of the controversial sex-education play "Secrets" in Harford public high schools, the County Council president has told the school board, or the schools could pay come budget time.

The statement, which fellow council members criticized as a veiled threat to cut education spending, came in a Dec. 10 letter council President Jeffrey D. Wilson wrote to Anne Sterling, president of the Harford County Board of Education.

"I should have thought the Board of Education would have figured out that this particular drama is not acceptable to large sections of the Harford County population," wrote Mr. Wilson, who also is a Presbyterian minister.

"I regret the necessity of reminding the Board of Education that the board is, in a large part, dependent upon the County Council as its funding entity," the letter continued. "It would be regrettable if the board's insensitivity to large parts of our county's community would have an adverse effect on the public support for education during the coming budget cycles."

Mrs. Sterling took the letter calmly and said she would call Mr. Wilson about it.

"If people are looking for a fight, they're not going to get one," she said. "I know Mr. Wilson feels strongly about things."

Mrs. Sterling said the school board would go ahead with this school year's last scheduled performance of the play, produced by Kaiser Permanente Health Systems using a national troupe of actors, at Aberdeen High in January.

"We won't back down on that," Mrs. Sterling said. "But there will be plenty of time for discussion to come up with a teaching program that will be acceptable to as many families as possible by next year."

She added that she did not believe the school system would be penalized financially for continuing to allow performances of "Secrets."

"I'm sure [Mr. Wilson's] goodwill toward the children of Harford -- County will prevail," Mrs. Sterling said.

In more than a decade, the County Council, which votes on the budget each year, has not cut money earmarked for the Board of Education in the county's executive's budget plan.

In fact, for most of that period -- with urging from Mr. Wilson in the past three years he has served on the council -- the council has cut money from other agencies to give the school board more.

Mr. Wilson's letter infuriated other council members.

"It implies he could rally the council to do what he wants to do for personal reasons," said Councilman Robert S. Wagner, R-District "He's saying, 'Here's what I can do to you.' Holding it in their face and shaking it at them goes beyond his authority. It's petty. It's disgustingly distasteful."

Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, renewed her call for individualized stationery for council members. The current council stationery lists the names of all seven council members.

"Regardless of his feelings about the play, the letter really went beyond his authority as the council president," Mrs. Pierno said. "Referring to the budget process could have been seen by the Board of Education as blackmail. It's not fair for an elected official to use the pressure that was implied."

She said Mr. Wilson had a right to voice an opinion about the play, which contains candid language about AIDS, condoms, homosexuality, bisexuality and premarital sex.

"The problem," she added, "is that when people see letters with all of our names at the top, they assume it's from the council as a body."

Councilwoman Joanne S. Parrott, R-District B, said she agreed with other council members that the wording of the letter "almost sounds like he's threatening the Board of Education."

"I don't agree with some of his statements, but he has a right to send the letters as long as he's speaking only for himself," said Councilman Barry T. Glassman, R-District D.

Mr. Wilson defended his position, saying he wrote the letter because the school board was ignoring groups opposing the play.

"Little by little, the Board of Education is whittling away its support. I can't continue to support public education if my constituents don't," Mr. Wilson said. "The Board of Education is out of touch with many significant groups. I've always made it my policy since I was elected to speak up for those I feel are not being heard."

He also said he was concerned that debate about whether the play should be shown has overshadowed one of its primary subjects.

"The real issue [how to teach students about AIDS] has ceased to be the focus of attention," Mr. Wilson said.

"Secrets" is shown to 11th- and 12th-graders who have their parents' permission to see it. Parents may view a videotape of the play before making that decision.

The play has been contested by some parents and students since first being shown to high school students a year ago. As a result, the school board banned a controversial scene demonstrating condom use by slipping one over a banana.

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