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Montgomery County

Writing on the Rightness of Sex-Ed Changes

Curriculum Prompts Hundreds To Protest or Voice Support

By Rebecca Dana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page C04

Peter Framson is hardly the letter-writing type. Not especially partisan, nor very religious, he is rarely stirred enough to put pen to paper about politics or cultural issues, let alone the actions of his local school board.

But that changed last month when the Montgomery County Board of Education voted to add a video of a woman applying a condom to a cucumber to its high school sex education curriculum along with a pilot program on sexual identity.

Sharon Cox, president of the Montgomery County school board, said public response to changes in the sex-ed curriculum "did not surprise me, either in its tenor or volume." Students, on the other hand, consider the changes "not really as big a deal," said the board's student member, Magruder High senior Sagar Sanghvi. (Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

Suddenly Framson, a real estate developer from North Potomac, was posting on bulletin boards and e-mailing the school district. He even was thinking about joining an effort to recall the eight-member school board.

"The school's job is not to teach my kids moral lessons," Framson said. "If you want to teach them about basic sex education, the proverbial birds and bees, the science aspect, fine. But taking it to this additional level, explaining more of the act of sex, that's not acceptable."

Nor is it acceptable to the hundreds like him in the region who have written or called the school district opposing the changes, for reasons religious and secular, in language measured and strong. Hundreds of others have written and called with equal passion in support of the new curriculum, which is to be implemented next year.

Said Takoma Park resident Sonya Cohen Cramer in a Nov. 18 e-mail to the board: "Don't let politics interfere with our children's right to know about all different aspects of life. Educate them well, and they'll make their own decisions based on information, not ignorance."

Indeed, Russell Henke, coordinator of health education in Montgomery County, said the changes have drawn responses from people speaking from personal experience and others who want their children to receive an education that reflects where society is today.

"We have the full spectrum," Henke said. "Some have been downright mean and nasty and very perjorative, and others who are opposed to what the board is doing really spoke from their hearts."

Under the changes, 10th-graders -- except those whose parents opt them out of the sex-ed portion of the required high school health education class -- will see a short video demonstrating how to apply a condom. Also added will be a one-week instructional segment on sexual identity, including discussions about homosexuality and bisexuality. This segment, proposed for eighth- and 10th-grade health classes, will be tested in the spring at three middle schools and three high schools, not yet chosen.

The school board president, Sharon W. Cox (At Large), said the strong feedback was expected. "The response did not surprise me, either in its tenor or volume," she said.

Henke, who said he has read through all of the letters and answered many of the calls, said the majority of responses have come from Montgomery County residents and most were from individuals, although a few dozen were form letters.

Framson, who has seventh- and 10th-grade boys enrolled in Montgomery schools, said he objects to the curricular changes not because of their content but because he believes they go beyond the school district's purview.

Others objected to the content as well as to the timing of the policy changes -- just a week after Election Day, when Cox, a strong advocate for the changes, was reelected. Still others take issue with the school system's opt-out policy, arguing that it isolates students whose parents do not want them exposed to elements of the sex education course.

Schools invite parents to review the materials for the course at the start of each semester, and parents must sign a waiver allowing their children to take the class. Those who opt out are given three options: an abstinence-only course, a course on stress management or an independent study.

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