Suit Planned Over Sex-Ed Program in Montgomery

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Two groups angered that Montgomery County public schools' new health curriculum includes a video demonstration on how to put on a condom and discussions about homosexuality say they expect to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court today to block the lessons from being taught in Maryland's largest public school system.

John Garza, vice president of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, said his group -- along with Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays -- is seeking a temporary injunction to block teaching of the new program, which is being piloted in six Montgomery County schools this month and will be expanded to all schools next year.

"We tried to put off this as long as possible," said Steve Fisher, spokesman for Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum. "We were so hoping that our own school system would talk to us about our valid concerns. They should have sat down with us instead of ignoring us, but apparently the Board of Education is going to move forward."

In November, the Montgomery County school board approved a health curriculum that incorporated changes in the eighth and 10th grades. Health lessons were redesigned to allow teachers to discuss homosexuality with eighth-grade students. Before the change, teachers could respond to questions but not initiate a conversation about the topic. Changes at the 10th-grade level included the addition of a seven-minute video that discusses abstinence and condoms and includes a segment during which a woman uses a cucumber to demonstrate how to put on a condom.

The lessons are part of a semester-long health education program that also includes instruction on peer pressure and safety and injury prevention. Parents must sign permission forms for their children to take part in these particular segments, and they can sit in on the lessons if space is available. Families also can opt out and choose an alternative, including an abstinence-only program.

But both groups contend that the opt-out provision discriminates against these children because it forcibly segregates them. They also maintain that the system's program is discriminatory because it does not allow ex-gays to present their viewpoints.

The dispute in Montgomery County mirrors debates that are taking place in communities across the country over what public school students should be taught when it comes to sex. Some school systems teach abstinence-only programs, while others have embraced a so-called "comprehensive approach" that includes instruction regarding contraception.

Fisher said his group was formed in December to protest what it believes are inappropriate and unbalanced additions to the curriculum. He said the new program fails to stress abstinence, and he said discussions about homosexuality at the eighth-grade level are one-sided.

Montgomery County educators said the curriculum changes were necessary to help students protect themselves from the dangers of unprotected sexual activity.

Montgomery County's program is being taught this month at three high schools -- Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Springbrook and Seneca Valley -- and three middle schools -- Tilden, Martin Luther King and White Oak. Parent information nights at Tilden and Martin Luther King on the new approach are scheduled for May 11.

Turnout has been low at other schools that have held informational meetings, said system spokesman Brian Edwards. At White Oak, about 20 people attended the meeting; eight were parents. About eight parents -- three of whom had students at the school -- attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase's information night last week.

"In general, parents have been supportive of the curriculum," Edwards said.

Fisher said he is not certain why so few parents are attending the information nights.

System officials said it was too early to determine how many parents have opted out of the new curriculum because, in some cases, permission slips have not yet been distributed.

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