Christian Sex-Ed Lesson Criticized

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

Christian comedian Keith Deltano used fear, shame and misinformation to spread his message about abstinence to students at three high schools in Loudoun County this school year, according to a critique by an organization that advocates comprehensive sex education.

The group reviewed Deltano's February performance at Dominion High School in Sterling. Its findings were shared Friday night at an event at George Washington University in Ashburn organized by Mainstream Loudoun and some churches.

The Ashburn event featured the movie "The Education of Shelby Knox," about a Christian teenager in Texas who becomes an advocate for comprehensive sex education, and a discussion afterward with the star of the film. Sponsors of the event said they wanted to start a public conversation about sex education in Loudoun.

"We were concerned that our kids were not being given the right information to make good decisions," said Kathy Hawes, president of Mainstream Loudoun, which advocates for the separation of church and state.

Similar conversations are taking place in communities beyond Loudoun, as federal funding for abstinence education has fueled an industry of abstinence-only educators, many of whom have been criticized for lacking professional training in health education.

Montgomery County schools recently banned a group of abstinence educators who asked students to share a piece of chewing gum to demonstrate how sexually transmitted infections can be spread.

The organizers of Friday's event said they have many questions about how abstinence lessons such as Deltano's fit into the Loudoun school system's Family Life Education, which has to comply with state standards.

"If it's part of the curriculum, they would have to follow certain guidelines. Teachers [would] have to have specific credentials," Hawes said. "That's something that confuses us."

The critique of Deltano's performance at Dominion High was conducted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. It included criticism of his decision to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of condoms against HIV by dangling a cinderblock over a male student's genital area. The group said the drill gave a message of fear and shame and misrepresented statistics about condom failure.

Overall, the critique said, "the presentation falls far short of helping young people develop the skills and knowledge they need to become sexually healthy adults."

Deltano also has appeared this school year at Loudoun County High School and Douglass School.

School system spokesman Wayde B. Byard said the decision to invite Deltano was made by each school's principal. He said school officials have not received many complaints from parents about the comedian's appearances.

The school system has no explicit policy pertaining to outside speakers, but the general rule is that they should "emphasize or enhance the curriculum," Byard said. Principals are responsible for screening speakers, and any religious speakers must sign a contract that they will stick to a secular message.

Dominion High Principal John Brewer said staff members formed a committee this year to find new ways to provide students with information and support to help them make decisions about sex. One of the committee's ideas was to bring in Deltano, Brewer said. The performance was paid for by Life Line Inc., a Christian pregnancy counseling center in Lansdowne.

"Our culture sends a lot of messages to our students about sexuality," Brewer said. "One that we don't send nearly enough is that there is a significant health risk when you choose to be sexually active."

Brewer said that Deltano cited credible sources for his information and that he thought students were more entertained than scared by the performance. Brewer said the abstinence message was balanced by the county's sex education policy for freshmen and sophomores, which includes information about contraceptives.

"What we wanted to emphasize by having Mr. Deltano come is that there's only one way to have 100 percent surety," Brewer said, alluding to abstinence.

Loudoun School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III attended Deltano's talk at Loudoun County High in the fall, as well as Mainstream Loudoun's event Friday. He reiterated after Friday's program that the county's Family Life Education curriculum complies with state law, which requires comprehensive sex education. Hatrick said teaching materials from that curriculum are put on display in the county administration building each fall, and he encouraged more parents to provide feedback.

Recently appointed School Board member John Stevens (Potomac) also attended Friday's event. He said afterward that he was concerned that "an assembly speaker . . . would be invited to speak who is not qualified to meet the regulations" of the broader sex education curriculum.

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