Facing obstacles to sex education

Md. schools reach to parents from different cultures


When she got married at 23, Yun Zheng got detailed answers about sex, a subject her parents never discussed with her in China. When Zheng registered her marriage, a government official showed her an informational video on relationships, families and sexual intimacy, she recalled.

For Zheng's 10-year-old son, though, sex education will begin in his fifth-grade classroom at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City. Though Zheng said her son may be too young to learn about changes in his body, she plans to let him participate in the class, resigned to the cultural and educational differences in America.

"For our parents, they would be shocked to learn that they're getting this type of education," she said through an interpreter.

Some immigrant parents - particularly in the Asian and Muslim communities - find that sex education in public schools is an entirely new concept, one that their kids could encounter as early as fifth grade. That clash of cultures can cause tension and ambivalence between home and school.

"You want to assure them that the sex education program is not out there to disrespect their values or corrupt their children or encourage their children to behave in a way that they're seriously opposed to," said Patricia Whelehan, a certified sex therapist and professor of anthropology at State University of New York, Potsdam.

"Especially if the kids are born and raised here, they're bicultural, and they're heavily influenced by their peers and what is expected of a teenager in a U.S. society. That could create a tremendous conflict and discomfort at home."

Sex education has long been a common - though at times controversial - topic in American classrooms. Maryland's Department of Education requires school districts to teach lessons on family life and human sexuality as part of health education.

But against the backdrop of studies showing increasing sexual activity among teens, and the debate over sex curriculum in Maryland and nationally, immigrant parents are running into a cultural barrier.

From 2000 to 2004, Maryland's foreign-born population rose nearly 15 percent, to 595,089, according to U.S. census estimates. With racial and ethnic minorities fueling growth in Baltimore's suburbs - particularly the burgeoning Asian population in Howard County - school systems are accommodating more students and parents who do not speak English.

Sex education curriculums vary across school districts in Maryland. The state requires school systems to start lessons on family life and human sexuality no earlier than age 10 and no later than 12, and provides general guidelines.

For instance, Harford County's middle school sex curriculum does not include lessons on contraception while Howard County's does. Montgomery County was sued by parent groups over its revised curriculum - now scrapped - which included a condom-use demonstration and let teachers initiate discussions on homosexuality. The state requires school systems to allow parents to exempt their children from these classes.

A number of school districts across Maryland have found ways to help immigrant families understand this sensitive yet important topic by translating curriculum handouts and permission slips as well as providing interpreters at parent meetings on sex education. Howard County has taken it a step further by starting a program that targets parents who speak little or no English and educating them about what's taught in their children's sex education classes.

Talking to children about puberty, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases can be uncomfortable for any parent. But an extra level of discomfort exists for immigrant parents who grew up in countries where sex is a taboo subject not just at school, but at home, experts and school officials say.

"In some cultures, if we were truly to be culturally competent in discussing sexual issues, we wouldn't be talking about it at all," said Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a sex education group in New York. "That's not a possibility."

Young-chan Han, Howard's family outreach specialist for students whose first language is not English, knows the conflicting feelings parents may have about how much and how soon their children should know about sex.

Her Korean-born parents never discussed the topic with her. So, when it came time for her oldest child, now a college student, to participate in sex education class in fifth grade, Han said no. She changed her mind with her second child and is looking forward to her fifth-grade son learning "all the facts."

Han encounters many foreign-born parents who ask why courses dealing with sexuality are even taught in their children's schools.

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