Schools Picked to Pilot Sex-Ed Lessons

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

Montgomery County school Superintendent Jerry D. Weast yesterday named six schools that will be the first in the county to introduce the topics of sexual orientation to students, an effort three citizen groups are fighting.

The county's new sex-education lessons, approved by the school board last month, will be introduced in field tests next month at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Julius West Middle in Rockville, Westland Middle in Bethesda, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, Sherwood High in Sandy Spring and Watkins Mill High in Gaithersburg.

Should the pilot program go forward, it would mark the first time sexual orientation has been addressed directly in eighth- and 10th-grade county health classes. Current curriculum allows teachers to broach the topic only in response to student inquiries.

No other lessons in Montgomery schools have come under more criticism in recent years than sex education, which occupies a few days in a semester-long health course.

The county Board of Education first approved the materials in fall 2004; the following May, days before the lessons were to be field-tested, a federal judge issued a restraining order and Weast called off the pilot program. Weast's staff rewrote the lessons, to restrict teachers to a script and remove portions that discussed religion, and received board approval Jan. 9.

On Wednesday, the same day Weast informed board members of the pilot schools, opponents of the curriculum petitioned the state Board of Education to reverse the county school board and halt the program.

The three groups behind the appeal, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays and the Family Leader Network, contend that the new curriculum still violates student rights to speech and religious exercise by portraying homosexuality as "natural and morally correct," according to a statement. "The lessons demand universal affirmation by students of the gay lifestyle, even if it is contrary to their religious beliefs," the statement said.

State education officials are reviewing whether the Maryland school board has jurisdiction to hear the appeal, said a department of education spokesman William Reinhard.

Montgomery school officials said the new curriculum is age-appropriate and faithful to state regulations. The lessons explore a range of sexual orientations and gender identities, define harassment and discrimination and teach tolerance. Additionally, students in grade 10 are shown how to apply a condom.

Schools were chosen for the pilot program based on statements of interests from principals. Each school will have an informational meeting, and students will be taught the lessons only if parents have given written permission. Weast said he will present the results of the field test in the spring, to give the school system time to refine the lessons before county-wide implementation in the fall.

Caroline Symons, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, said she did not know anyone whose parents planned to exclude them from the lessons.

"I think a lot of parents here would know that their kids know at least something about this," she said. "Maybe some of the kids know more than their parents think, to be honest."

Ethan Dubin, 15, a sophomore at Sherwood High, predicted his parents "will be fine with it, and probably most parents will be. . . . It's just learning about something new."

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