Balance in Sex Education

Saturday, May 7, 2005

THE DISPUTE over the proposed sex education curriculum in Montgomery County goes well beyond cucumbers and condoms: It involves where to strike the balance between encouraging abstinence and providing information about ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections; whether, when and how issues of homosexuality should be discussed in school health classes; and how far schools should go to accommodate the concerns of parents who disagree with what schools propose to teach their children.

We think most of the curriculum is suitable, especially given that parents must opt in before any student is exposed to it. But on Thursday a federal judge blocked the system from launching it in six schools as planned for next week, and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast then wisely chose to call the whole thing off for the rest of the school year. The delay gives school officials a chance to do more thorough review -- something you'd think they would have done by now, given the months of controversy. School officials need to remove some of the inappropriate "teacher resource" material accompanying the curriculum, particularly documents that praise some religious denom inations and criticize others; it's no wonder some parents were upset about that. Though students don't see this material, it shouldn't have been deemed acceptable as the basis for teachers to plan lessons, and it shouldn't have taken a court case for Mr. Weast to learn of it.

As to what students will see, the "Protect Yourself" video -- you can find it at http://www.recall -- seems to us to provide important facts about condom use and safety without encouraging sexual activity by the 10th-graders who will see it. The video begins and ends with clear messages that only abstinence can provide complete protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection. As much as we'd hope that 10th-graders heed that message, we also know that many don't. For those who are sexually active, or may soon be, the video reinforces the importance of proper condom use.

The county's current approach to teaching about homosexuality amounts to the educational version of "don't ask, don't tell": Teachers can address the topic only if asked, and then only perfunctorily. But teens who know or suspect they are gay ought to have accurate information about what that means; other students ought to know that, whatever their own views about homosexuality, they should treat every individual with respect and tolerance. Some critics of the new curriculum are unhappy that eighth-graders are to be taught that same-sex parents are among the various kinds of families; we think that by that age most students know a lot more than that.

For parents who object, the fail-safe is a county policy that requires parents to sign permission slips for their children to attend the classes. They can opt out of all or part of the short (two weeks for eighth-graders, three weeks for 10th-graders) sessions, and the county provides alternatives, including an abstinence-only curriculum. With fixes, the new system would be an improvement that respects the right of some parents to dissent.

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