Schools, Sex and Values ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

March 17, 1993

A high school teen-ager commits suicide. In class the next day, upset students want to talk about their grief. Their teacher refuses; there can be no such discussion for a month, until after a written permission form is sent home to parents and returned.

This is not the way our schools operate. But it is the way Del. John Gary, R-Millersville, would like them to. Delegate Gary, one of Anne Arundel County's most knowledgeable representatives as well as its most socially conservative, has been working for years to make schools get written parental consent for sex education, instead of allowing parents simply to ask that their children be excused. Now he is also sponsoring legislation to restrict "mental health instruction," defined as everything from suicide prevention to induced altered states of consciousness.

The expense involved in processing consent forms is the least of the problems this bill presents. Given that there is no mental health curriculum, how can such a bill be enforced? It deals with a spectrum so broad that teachers would have trouble knowing when they've stepped on dangerous turf. Would a drama teacher have to get permission before using relaxation exercises, covered under the bill, to relieve opening night jitters? Could a guidance counselor give stress management tips to a student who freezes before tests?

A few of the items mentioned in the bill -- meditation, self-hypnosis, yoga -- are considered controversial by some people. But instruction to build self-esteem, manage stress and help kids cope with dying is another story. Perhaps the children of parents committed to steering them along a certain path do not need the schools' help in handling complex emotional needs. However, there are plenty of others who do. And the overwhelming majority of parents want their children exposed to a variety of ideas about sex, death and emotional well-being.

Lawmakers and schools must respect the minority's right to exclusive control over what their children are taught about issues involving values. But these few must not be allowed to decide what is best for everyone's children. Besides, if the family unit is really as strong as Delegate Gary and his supporters believe, a discussion about a classmate's death or a cautionary reference to safe sex should not pose a threat.

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