Sexual orientation lessons could change in Montgomery

Montgomery County school officials could take a major step Tuesday toward updating the district’s teaching of sexual orientation, with proposals calling for introduction of the topic a year earlier in middle school and an end to scripted lessons with required phrasing.

Lessons on sexual orientation are one of just a few topics in the health curriculum — or any Montgomery curriculum — that have faced such careful teaching constraints. Officials said Monday that only a condom demonstration came with similar teaching scripts, and that too would change.

The Montgomery school board is slated to discuss the changes Tuesday as part of a broader review of the health curriculum for secondary students. After the board’s discussion, a 30-day public comment period is expected to begin, with a final board vote set for June 17. Students could see the changes in their classrooms this fall.

Health courses in Montgomery’s secondary schools include such topics as drug abuse, dating violence, the use of social media and stress management. But the topic of sexual orientation has been highly controversial, drawing vocal critics and legal actions.

Scripted lessons arose arose amid efforts to create a new sex-education curriculum after a federal judge in 2005 halted the school system’s lessons because the judge said they seemed to offer only one perspective on homosexuality and dismissed religions that consider it a sin. Many educators found the scripted lessons artificial and unengaging, officials said Monday.

“We’re trying to teach critical thinking skills, and reading from a script doesn’t do that,” said Marty Creel, director of curriculum and instruction, who said he has heard a positive response from department heads. “They see it as a change that’s been long overdue.”

In 2008, a state court judge upheld Montgomery’s sex education lessons, turning down a challenge from religious conservatives who said elected officials violated state law with teaching that sexual orientation is innate.

Years later, it is unclear how much controversy will resurface. Social attitudes have shifted in recent years, with a same-sex marriage law taking effect in Maryland last year.

“I think obviously there is a much greater openness to this topic,” Creel said.

If approved by the board, scripted teaching would be gone by the start of the next school year, and sexual orientation would become part of seventh-grade classes, rather than in eighth grade, when the subject is now taught.

The move down a grade comes in recognition of national data that shows harassment because of perceived sexual orientation affects students in middle school, officials said.

Among other studies, school officials cited a 2009 survey showing that eight of 10 middle school and high school students who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender reported verbal harassment at school. Four of 10 said they had been physically harassed.

“Middle school is a time when a lot of bullying happens,” said Erick J. Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.

In Montgomery, students take health classes for one nine-week marking period during each year of middle school and for one semester of high school. Elementary school students are not affected by the changes under consideration.

The proposals are part of a broader curriculum revision that would include eliminating a family life lesson now given in sixth grade, which was viewed as repetitive of material presented in fifth grade. If the proposals are approved, teachers would receive professional development this summer.

David S. Fishback, advocacy chair for the Metro Washington chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said Monday he has been involved in the sex education debate for 12 years in Montgomery and was glad to see the issue continuing to move forward. He plans to testify before the board Tuesday.

“They’ve made great steps in recent years and this, it appears, will make it much better and much more effective,” Fishback said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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