State Urged To Halt Sex-Ed Test Course

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Montgomery County school board this week defended its new sex-education pilot program, due to begin in six schools this month, in reply to a petition from three groups that asked the state school board to halt the lessons.

The dueling legal documents place the state Board of Education in the unusual role of judging the legality of a major initiative by a county school system. The groups behind the Feb. 7 petition chose to appeal to the state school board instead of the courts.

At issue is whether a new set of lessons on human sexuality, approved in January by the county school board, violate the constitutional rights of students and their parents in the treatment of homosexuality. The lessons, scheduled to begin in the second or third week of March as part of health classes in grades 8 and 10, raise the topic of sexual orientation to Montgomery students for the first time.

The petition comes from Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, a Montgomery group that arose in opposition to the county's sex-education efforts, joined by Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, a Virginia nonprofit organization, and Family Leader Network, another nonprofit group.

Their petition alleges that the new curriculum promotes "one moral viewpoint on a controversial and sensitive moral subject to the exclusion of all other views" by positing homosexuality as normal, healthy and morally right. The petitioners say the lessons discriminate against ex-gays by omitting their perspective, and violate strongly held religious beliefs by teaching that everyone, even those who consider homosexuality a sin, must tolerate homosexuals.

The county school board replies that the petitioners "simply disagree with the curriculum and want it rewritten to include their views on sexual orientation." In the school board's view, nothing in the new lessons demands affirmation of homosexuality: The lessons are "carefully tailored to avoid making or opposing any moral judgment about any sexual orientation," the county school board states in a memorandum dated Monday.

The Montgomery school board has been endeavoring to rewrite the county's sex-education curriculum since 2002, when an advisory group pointed out that students were offered no information about sexual orientation unless they asked teachers to provide it. The school board's first attempt at a revised curriculum was halted in 2005, days before a scheduled field test, after a federal judge found fault with language in a supplement to the lessons that portrayed some religious groups as having negative attitudes about homosexuality.

No such language appears in the new lessons, rewritten from scratch, according to the school board. The authors took pains to limit teachers to a script and to ensure that no potentially contentious supplementary material makes its way into classrooms.

The state Board of Education will decide by March 9 whether to issue a stay and halt the lessons, according to spokesman Bill Reinhard. Field tests are scheduled to start around the same time; an exact date has not been announced.

Barring intervention by the state, the new curriculum will be introduced in field tests at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Julius West Middle in Rockville, Westland Middle and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Sherwood High in Sandy Spring and Watkins Mill High in Gaithersburg. Schools are hosting parent information meetings.

Montgomery school officials say the new curriculum is faithful both to the state curriculum and to state regulations. The lessons explore a range of sexual orientations and gender identities, define harassment and discrimination, and teach tolerance.

Schools were chosen for the pilot program based on statements of interest from principals. Students will be taught the lessons only if parents have given written permission. School board members have said they want a full briefing on the pilot program, including the range of questions raised by students and the impressions of teachers, before they proceed with countywide implementation in the fall.

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