Sex-Ed Pilot Is Endorsed By Grasmick

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick yesterday denied a request from three citizen groups to halt field tests of new sex-education lessons about sexual orientation in six Montgomery County schools and said she was convinced of "the value of going forward" with the pilot program.

With Grasmick's endorsement, there is nothing to stop the field tests from proceeding. Opponents of the new curriculum, approved in January by the county Board of Education, say they look forward to the decision of the Maryland State Board of Education on whether the curriculum should be overturned.

Montgomery school officials launched field tests this week of new lessons that, for the first time, have health teachers introduce the concept of sexual orientation in the eighth and 10th grades. Parents must give written permission for their children to attend the sessions.

That the field tests are happening -- the first began Tuesday at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring -- represents a symbolic victory for the county school board. An earlier version of the curriculum, approved by the school board, was halted by a federal judge in spring 2005, days before field tests were to begin.

Critics of the 2005 curriculum oppose the rewritten lessons, too. In a petition filed last month with the state Department of Education, the groups allege the lessons compromise and injure the "sincere religious moral beliefs regarding homosexual conduct" held by some Montgomery families, whose faith dictates that homosexuality is a sin.

The Montgomery school board countered that the critics "simply disagree with the curriculum and want it rewritten to include their views on sexual orientation."

In a five-page order released yesterday, Maryland's chief schools official wrote that critics' and supporters' legal arguments were "balanced equally on each side."

But she refused to take the extraordinary step of ordering a stay.

"The Appellants argue that the content of the lessons is inherently harmful because it violates their First Amendment rights," she wrote. "I have read the lessons, and I am not convinced of the certainty of such violations. I am convinced, however, of the value of going forward with the field test. The educational community in Montgomery County has invested hundreds of hours in developing the lessons and needs to know whether or not they work in the classroom."

Grasmick said parents could opt out if they found the curriculum objectionable.

The petition goes to the state school board, with instructions from Grasmick to rule no later than July on whether the curriculum should be implemented county-wide in fall.

Each side claimed a measure of victory.

Brian Edwards, spokesman for the county school system, said it was "clear from reviewing her ruling that she believes these lessons are valuable and ought to be tested in the classroom."

He said the pilot program has yielded early evidence that the new lessons are acceptable to most parents. A series of informational meetings drew no more than 12 parents at any school, he said.

Michelle Turner, spokeswoman for lead opposition group Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, was pleased that Grasmick found merit in each side's argument.

"For Grasmick to say that we are equally matched -- it's a coin toss at this point," she said.

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