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Montgomery Parents View Sex-Ed Video

Contested Segment of New 10th-Grade Unit Recommends the Use of Condoms

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page C05

About 200 people, most of them parents, gathered yesterday at the Montgomery County campus of Johns Hopkins University to watch a video that has become the most disputed seven minutes of the county schools' curriculum.

The viewing of "Protect Yourself," produced by the school district for use in 10th-grade classrooms, was sponsored by a group opposed to the video. Audience members were mostly engrossed as they watched a young woman on the screen talk about abstinence, safe sex and the properties of latex, then unroll a condom onto a cucumber.

The video concluded to mostly awkward silence. Then members of the audience had their say.

"Condoms are not working," said Walter Harders, an insurance agent who took a turn at the microphone. "Our children are getting pregnant, and they are getting sexually transmitted diseases, and it has to stop."

The school board approved the video for districtwide use in November, adding it to the health education curriculum along with a pilot program on sexual orientation that also has been drawn into the community debate about values and parental rights.

Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, the group that sponsored the presentation, handed out fliers listing elements of the revised curriculum that they deem offensive, immoral or inappropriate. They also circulated petitions urging the school board to discard it.

In the video, a narrator repeatedly reminds viewers to use a condom -- a word mentioned 44 times in seven minutes.

The lesson plan for eighth and 10th grades covers gender identity, defined as "a person's internal sense of knowing whether he is male or female." Tenth-graders also would be taught the concept of transgender, "someone whose gender identity or expression differs from conventional expectations for their physical sex."

The lessons state that "sex play with friends of the same gender is not uncommon" in early adolescence, and that this does not necessarily mean you are homosexual. It includes same-sex couples among the "greater variety of households" in modern society.

Students' parents must sign a form before they can participate in the sex-ed segment of health education class.

Some at the Rockville screening said the curriculum was further evidence of a homosexual agenda in the public schools, the work of gay advocacy groups intent on influencing children.

"They really want a monopoly over children's minds, and they will brook no opposition," said Robert Knight, director of the right-leaning Culture and Family Institute in Washington.

Janet Cummings, a Brookeville mother of two students, said she didn't like the tone of the video's narrator or its producers, who, in her view, seemed to be paying lip service to abstinence and implicitly endorsing premarital sex.

"Any young person there knows what's the cool thing that they were portraying, and it wasn't abstinence," she said.

Ruth Jacobs, a physician from Rockville, said the curriculum "puts a lot of pressure on kids to figure out who they are, what they are. And they shouldn't be forced to do that."

The quietest moment came when Scott Davenport of Bethesda spoke. "I am scared," he said, "because I am a gay man, and I am very scared to be here right now."

"We all share the same concerns," said Davenport, who with his partner has two children, ages 12 and 14. "I personally don't find that video offensive. I find that video balanced. . . . Kids need to hear all sides of the story."

The curriculum was developed in 2003 by school district staff and reviewed by a board-appointed committee. Montgomery teachers had been forbidden to broach homosexuality except in response to a student's question, and there were no condom demonstrations.

School district policy requires a curriculum that stresses abstinence but also discusses contraception.

Research suggests that this helped drive down teen pregnancy rates, although abstinence-only proponents say advising teens about safe sex encourages teenage sexuality.

"You're worried about a four-minute video and the impact it will have on your kid, when 23 hours and 56 minutes they're with you," said Karen Troccoli, an audience member who works for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She said she was speaking for herself, not her employer.

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