Parents Final Arbiters on Sex-Ed

Steina Walter, with her daughter Diana, 14, at their Bethesda home, said that although she isn't opposed to sex education, she thinks that Montgomery's new curriculum goes too far.
Steina Walter, with her daughter Diana, 14, at their Bethesda home, said that although she isn't opposed to sex education, she thinks that Montgomery's new curriculum goes too far. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Sunae Lee never discussed sex with her parents when she was growing up in Korea. The topic was absolutely taboo. The only thing her mother ever told her was a cryptic, "Be careful," she recalled though an interpreter. She was a 26-year-old newlywed when she finally understood what her mother was talking about.

So then her 11-year-old daughter, Ashley, a fifth-grader at Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City, came home recently with a permission slip to participate in the school's sex education class, Lee cringed.

Howard County's curriculum doesn't include discussions on homosexuality or condom use, as did Montgomery County's scuttled sex education program. But it raised a host of issues that Lee was unsure whether she or her daughter were prepared to deal with.

"It's a little bit too early because still, she's my baby," she said.

Last week, Montgomery suspended plans to introduce a new sex education curriculum after a federal judge ruled in favor of two community groups that sought a restraining order against the plan's implementation. The two groups, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, had criticized the curriculum as biased and critical of certain religious groups.

School officials and the groups could continue their legal battle and political wrangling for months, mirroring a growing national concern over the values taught in public schools. But at the heart of the debate are the personal decisions of parents trying to decide how much is enough when it comes to sex education.

For two Montgomery County parents, the decision was clear, though they reached very different conclusions.

Kathleen Whitman of Silver Spring had attended a meeting with her eighth-grader's health teacher at White Oak Middle School, one of six schools that were slated to test the new curriculum. She watched the video in which a young woman demonstrates how to put on a condom . Her daughter would have seen the video in 10th grade, and Whitman wasn't worried.

"We talk about things as they come up in the house," she said. "It isn't like a one-time, 'Let's sit down and cover everything. . . .' I like being available to my children and being able to have that discussion."

Whitman said her daughter is sensitive -- and talkative. They had had conversations about homosexuality, but when the permission slip came home, it spurred a new round of dinner-table discussions. Whitman said her family tries to focus on relationships and respect, though sexually transmitted diseases and anatomy also have come up, eliciting the occasional "ewwww" from her fifth-grade daughter.

"Things don't go backward," Whitman said. "People who are trying to go back to the sixties, it's not going to work."

But Steina Walter, a Bethesda parent, said there's a danger in going too far, as well.


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