Sex-Ed Plan Could Revive Heated Debate From 2005

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

Montgomery County school officials previewed new middle and high school lesson plans yesterday on sexual orientation and condom use, topics that could refuel the debate on how much the county's teenagers need to know about homosexuality and premarital sex.

The lessons -- which have come under more dispute than any other piece of the county schools curriculum -- represent an attempt at compromise among the school system and polarized community groups that have fought bitterly about the merits of taking lessons on sexuality beyond heterosexuality.

In spring 2005, a federal judge halted the school system's sex education lessons, noting that they seemed to offer only one perspective on homosexuality and to dismiss religions that consider it a sin.

School board members will consider the new sex education curriculum Tuesday at what promises to be a well-attended meeting. Defenders of the curriculum expect the community groups that sued in 2005 to halt the new sex-ed curriculum to do so again. But group leaders said yesterday that they would give the school board a chance to act before taking any steps.

"I really think Montgomery County schools can do better," said Ruth Jacobs, an infectious-disease specialist and member of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, which, along with Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, sued to block the first incarnation of the curriculum.

The lessons, approved by the county school board in fall 2004, introduce sexual orientation topics to eighth- and 10th-graders and correct condom use to 10th-graders. Board members decided to add a discussion of homosexuality, which Montgomery teachers had been barred from broaching except in response to students' questions.

The lessons, which take place during health class, consist of two 45-minute sessions in grade eight and three sessions in grade 10.

Parents organized against the curriculum and an eight-minute condom demonstration video, in which a young health educator unrolls a condom onto a cucumber. Critics said that the lessons tacitly encouraged premarital sex and homosexuality and failed to voice varied views, such as that sexual orientation is a choice or that anal intercourse can pose particular medical risks.

In 2005, the citizens groups sued. In May of that year, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. issued a temporary restraining order, opining that the curriculum "presents only one view on the subject -- that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle -- to the exclusion of other perspectives." The litigants reached an agreement in June 2005, and the school board agreed not to broach religious beliefs in the revised lessons.

With the help of medical experts, school officials have spent more than a year crafting the curriculum. It was reviewed by a citizens committee that included representatives from all parties to the suit. The document incorporated 69 of 83 changes recommended by the committee. But neither side is completely satisfied.

A majority of committee members recommended that the lessons include emphatic statements that homosexuality is not a disease or mental illness and that sexuality is not a choice, beliefs supported by mainstream medical groups. School officials decided such statements did not fit the "objectives for the lesson," according to internal school system documents.

"I suspect that they're shying away from controversy here," said Jim Kennedy, a member of the citizens committee and, a group of Montgomery parents and their supporters pushing for broader lessons.

David Fishback, also a member of that group, noted that every successful Montgomery school board candidate last fall favored teaching that sexuality is not a choice. "They're going to have to decide whether to follow their campaign pledge," he said.

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