By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
The "gum game," an exercise in which students were encouraged to share gum to illustrate the effects of peer pressure, was played in Montgomery County schools for nine years without incident before a parent's complaint halted it last month, according to directors of the Rockville clinic that created the lesson.
Leaders of the Rockville Pregnancy Center yesterday stressed the important work they were doing in Montgomery schools, teaching 90-minute lessons on abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases to high school students in health class through a program called Worth the Wait.
"We saw 6,500 kids last year. Who's going to talk to them now?" asked Gail Tierney, the group's executive director.
The clinic, a faith-based organization that offers counseling and support to pregnant women as an alternative to abortion, was expelled from the schools in January after a parent alerted school officials that a speaker had asked students to take turns chewing a piece of gum. Sharing gum poses a low risk of transmitting germs, on par with drinking from the same cup, health officials said.
Tierney said she was unaware until last weekend that the clinic had been barred from the school system, a decision conveyed to the county school board in a Jan. 12 memo from Deputy Superintendent Frieda K. Lacey.
"They threw the baby out with the bathwater," Tierney said in an interview yesterday.
School-system officials said their decision is final.
The issue, schools spokesman Brian Edwards said, was not the group's religious underpinnings -- the classroom lessons had no religious content -- but rather the wisdom of asking a group of adolescents to share gum.
"What this exercise showed is a terrible lack of judgment," Edwards said. "It is disgusting on its face. There's no question about it."
The episode has prompted a review of all groups allowed to speak in health classes, which touch on the highly politicized topics of abstinence, premarital sex and birth control. A coalition of citizen groups that favor an abstinence-only approach to sex education denounced the school board for approving new health lessons last month that introduce the topics of sexual orientation and homosexuality in grades 8 and 10.
Edwards said the decision to invite outside speakers normally falls to school officials. The Rockville group was approved on a countywide basis, which is rare, he said. He said there is no "master list" of groups approved countywide.
The curriculum officials responsible for approving the group to speak in classrooms -- first in 1998 and, most recently, last fall -- have both retired, Edwards said. The latest approval was granted by e-mail by an administrator who reviewed an eight-page outline of the lesson. The only reference to gum in the outline is the notation "Gum game. Discuss results."
Faith-based organizations aren't automatically barred from public schools, Edwards said. The decision hinges on the content of the lessons.
"There was no indication to us that [this] group's religious views entered into what they were teaching," Edwards said. "The issue here is what was being instructed. Not who."
Seh-Hee Koh, director of Worth the Wait, broke down in tears yesterday as she related her passion for teaching teens about abstinence. Her message, Koh said, was to help students feel "empowered to make the choices in their lives. Not their boyfriends; not their girlfriends."
Koh assumed the job last year and had visited only 11 Montgomery schools when her agency's invitation was revoked. Koh said she has continued to visit private after-school programs in the Washington region. Tierney said the lessons no longer include the gum game.
Koh said she did not know about the gum exercise when she inherited the lessons and did not use it in the first several schools she visited. She said a health teacher told her that her predecessor had played the gum game and that students had seemed to like it.
Koh said her first reaction was, "Ew, that's gross." But she tried it at Damascus High School in early December, and students liked it. So she tried it again at Churchill, Einstein and Poolesville high schools in a series of visits through Jan. 9.
"I'd just stand back," Koh said, describing the game. "I'd say: 'It's all volunteer. Nobody has to be doing this.' My intention would be that nobody does this."
The game occupied a few minutes in the lesson on the consequences of premarital sex and exposure to STDs. Koh shared a stack of positive reviews written by teachers and students.
Edwards disputed her account and said he'd heard no reports of teachers encouraging Koh to play the gum game. He confirmed, however, that teachers were present during all of the lessons.
School board member Patricia O'Neill said she believes the faith-based group "had no business" in the county schools.
But O'Neill said her daughter and nephew, both high school students, had a different opinion. "Their reaction was some of the best parts of the health class are the outside speakers, because the curriculum is so boring," she said.