Committee Reassesses Sex-Ed Decisions

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 15, 2005

As chairman of the 27-member committee overseeing the rewrite of Montgomery County Public Schools' sex education curriculum, David Fishback, the father of two, knew he was venturing into sensitive territory. He knew critics would scrutinize every sentence of the revised materials. He knew that one misstep could derail the entire program.

But when a federal judge this month issued a 10-day order blocking the school system from teaching the curriculum that for the first time would have allowed teachers to initiate discussions about homosexuality in eighth grade and would have offered a seven-minute video on how to put on a condom to 10th-graders, Fishback was shocked at the reasoning.

It wasn't the carefully worded curriculum the committee helped write -- curriculum reviewed at length by school system staff -- that derailed the new approach.

Rather, the program was undone by a packet of teacher resource materials that few on the committee thought would draw notice or objections and that students would not likely see.

But members of two groups that opposed changes in the course -- Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays -- saw big problems with the supporting materials. They feared that the viewpoints expressed in the pieces -- articles that in some cases singled out religious denominations less tolerant of homosexuality, such as Baptists -- inevitably would slip into the classroom. A federal judge agreed.

"The Court does not understand why it is necessary, in attempting to achieve the goals of advocating tolerance and providing health-related information, Defendants must offer up their opinion on such controversial topics as whether homosexuality is a sin, whether AIDS is God's judgment on homosexuality and whether churches that condemn homosexuality are on theologically solid ground," wrote Judge Alexander Williams Jr. in granting the groups' request for a temporary restraining order to prevent school officials from launching the new curriculum in six schools.

Montgomery County school officials, citing ongoing litigation, have declined to discuss anything related to the sex education curriculum, including the process by which the committee selected the teacher resource materials.

But members of the Citizens' Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development have offered their accounts.

Fishback said committee members had not anticipated problems with the resource materials because the documents were for teacher reference and were not likely to be distributed to students.

In January 2004, committee members approved the teacher resource materials for eighth grade on a vote of 13 to 1, with five abstentions. That May, teacher resource materials for 10th grade were recommended on a vote of 10 to 4, with three abstentions.

The resources included materials from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association. But it was material from other groups -- the Family Pride Coalition, a D.C.-based nonprofit that supports equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents and their families, and the Triangle Foundation, a Michigan-based advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues -- as well as an article from the Prevention Researcher newsletter that concerned Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum. The newsletter article, which singled out some religious denominations as less tolerant of homosexuality, drew much of the criticism.

Looking back, Fishback said, the committee should have anticipated the reaction.

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