Don't Gum Up Sex-Ed; Leave Instruction to Professional Teachers

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, February 15, 2007

In the matter of the "gum game" -- the yucky attempt in Montgomery County schools to impress upon teenagers the dangers of sexual promiscuity by asking them to share a piece of gum -- all involved now appear to be appalled at themselves.

"In hindsight, it's gross and disgusting," says Gail Tierney, founder and head of the Rockville Pregnancy Center, the evangelical, antiabortion clinic that taught abstinence classes to thousands of Montgomery schoolchildren until the gum hit the fan.

"It's a disgusting, gross exercise that no adult should have asked a child to do, no matter what the purpose," says Brian Edwards, spokesman for the county school system, which has now banned the Pregnancy Center from public classrooms.

Okay, the game is revolting, and the group is gone -- we got that. But I still have questions: Why, exactly, was teaching about sensitive and difficult issues of sexual activity and sexually transmitted disease outsourced? And why was this job entrusted to the Pregnancy Center, which says its abstinence program is based on the belief that "pregnancy is not the root problem, but a symptom of a lifestyle that is outside of God's will"?

"It's a mystery why this group was approved by the central office," Edwards tells me. I appreciate his candor, but if I were a Montgomery parent, I'd be keen to see that mystery solved.

Tierney notes that the county repeatedly approved the Pregnancy Center's abstinence program, which was presented to more than 6,500 Montgomery eighth- and 10th-graders last year. She produces a stack of evaluations of the program by teachers and students, many of whom singled out the gum game for praise as a dramatic way to get across the role peer pressure plays in making bad decisions.

But the Pregnancy Center is not entirely aboveboard here. The six-page synopsis of the "Worth the Wait" program that the center submitted for the school system's approval goes into great detail about some exercises used in the class. For example, there are 27 sentences about the No STDs Game, in which kids pass around slips of paper naming different outcomes of random sexual contact, the idea being to demonstrate the nasty surprises awaiting those who hook up.

Here, in contrast, is the entire description of the gum game: "Gum game. Discuss results."

And here's the full text submitted about another favorite exercise that won't be used anymore: "Exlax game."

In this game, students were handed squares of Hershey's chocolate, but before they popped the candy, they were told that a few kids had instead received Ex-Lax laxatives. Still want to eat it? Few did, and, in fact, Tierney assures me that although this exercise "really freaks them out," it is only a mind game designed to drive home the idea of random risk -- no laxatives were distributed to students.

These games are certainly popular. On an evaluation form, one student gave the exercise high marks: "If you refuse to risk taking a laxative, why risk having unprotected sex?" A Springbrook High teacher noted that students were still "wearing the buttons" -- pro-abstinence pins that say "I'm Worth The Wait!" -- even days after the class.

Still, the gum game was wildly inappropriate, says Brenda Willett, whose son was the eighth student to chew a piece of gum in a class at Churchill High in Potomac. "Are our health teachers devoid of any common sense?" asks Willett, who wants the county to test all children who chewed the pre-munched gum for STDs, mono and other contagions.

Doctors say it's not likely that anyone caught anything from the gum, even if 15 students did chew the same revolting ball of spit at Poolesville High, leaving precious few kids for the abstinence educator to praise for resisting peer pressure.

The primary problem here is not one of goals or even of tactics -- teaching the value of abstinence until an age of greater emotional maturity is a fine idea, and as dumb as these games are, they're not nearly as harmful as rampant sexual activity by 14-year-olds.

No, the main issue here is the one that gums up communication between adults and teens in the first place. Sex is hard to talk about, and not everyone agrees on the right message. Battered by years of debate over sex education, the Montgomery school system was relieved to offload some of the job to outsiders.

Those outsiders have a hidden agenda of their own. Tierney assures me there is no religious content to the school lessons. But her abstinence instructor says she makes a point of offering each class free pregnancy tests at the center. There, Tierney shows me how each woman who comes in for a test gets the full-court antiabortion press: a showcase of cute little plastic fetuses, a walk through a treasure chest of baby clothes, a video on the ravages of abortion and a sonogram "so they can hear the beating heart and see that this is a real, live baby," Tierney says.

"If a woman is totally panic-stricken and confused, if she wants to know that God loves her and has a plan for her, we're here for her," she says. "If she doesn't want to hear it, fine. There's no condemnation."

Tierney suspects the school system was "looking for a way to get rid of us" because of the center's religious, antiabortion perspective. Edwards says religion played no role in the approval or expulsion of the center.

Tierney is searching for a way back into the system's good graces: "If we're not there, who is going to give them the abstinence message?" How about the professionals we pay to do the job -- the teachers?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company