Wide Berth Allowed on Teaching About Homosexuality

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Montgomery County's overhaul of its sex education curriculum, which has inspired a lawsuit, petition drives, national news coverage and the formation of fiercely polarized community groups, was itself inspired by two words buried deep within the regulatory code of Maryland, which advises school systems to teach "sexual variations."

The county school system invoked those regulations in defense of disputed new lessons that introduce students to sexual orientation and transgenderism in grades eight and 10.

Neither Maryland nor Virginia requires school systems to teach about sexual orientation, state officials said. Maryland's stipulation that schools teach sexual variations as one of several "areas of emphasis" in health classes is open to broad interpretation.

Montgomery's new curriculum, approved last week for field tests this spring, goes deeper into sexual and gender identity than most other Washington area school systems have dared, judging by an informal survey. Some Northern Virginia systems don't teach about sexual orientation, and Maryland systems generally broach the topic in less detail or at the request of a curious student. Information from D.C. schools was not available.

"Everyone's watching Montgomery right now, in no uncertain terms," to see whether the new curriculum survives an expected legal challenge, said Jean-Marie Navetta, spokeswoman for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a national nonprofit organization. If the lessons emerge intact, they could be replicated.

The initiative to place Montgomery at the forefront of the explosive national debate about teaching sex in schools began with a citizens committee, which reviewed the county's family life and human development curriculum five years ago and recommended that the Board of Education lift its virtual ban on discussing homosexuality in class. Teachers could bring up the topic only in response to a student's query.

The old curriculum, which is still in place across the county, "was ignoring the reality of the world we live in," said school board member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "Before this, we were silent."

The structure of state regulations about sex education speaks to the delicate balance between providing lessons to children about sexuality, discrimination and public health and respecting the religious and moral values of parents.

Maryland and Virginia encourage systems to write sex education lessons that conform to local community standards. Both states require that every school system have a citizens committee to review proposed sex education lessons and that families be allowed to review the lessons and, if they wish, have their children opt out.

But Dixie Stack, curriculum director for the Maryland State Department of Education, said there is nothing "specific in COMAR," the acronym by which the code is known, "that says homosexuality must be taught. The truth is, the language in COMAR is not specific about what should be taught."

The Montgomery Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development -- the panel required by state law -- recommended five years ago that sexual orientation be introduced to the health curriculum. Committee members noted that five of eight Washington area school systems provided instruction "that includes references to or information about sexual variations," according to the committee's 2002 report to the school board.

The resulting lessons, which discussed sexual orientation in the context of tolerance and diversity, satisfied the citizens committee and school system staff and placed the liberal-leaning county at the forefront of such teachings. But the curriculum met fierce resistance from some parents. A group collected 3,700 signatures on a petition opposing the lessons.

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