More Than 9 in 10 Attend Sex-Ed Pilot Program

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

Four percent of students opted out of a closely watched sex-education pilot program at six Montgomery County middle and high schools, the critical field test of a new curriculum that has put the school system at the center of a national debate on whether homosexuality should be taught in the classroom.

In total, 901 teens were offered the lessons over four weeks in health classes at Argyle, Julius West and Westland middle schools and Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Sherwood and Watkins Mill high schools.

The lessons, approved in January by the county school board, polarized the comparatively liberal Montgomery parent community. But with the launch of the pilot last month, attention shifted from the curriculum itself to whether large numbers of students would exercise their right to opt out.

Supporters said the final attendance figures, released by school officials last month, proved that the vast majority of parents approve teaching their teenage children about sexual orientation, transsexuality and "coming out."

"I think these kids need as much information as possible," said Melissa Reitkopp Schwartz, whose 10th-grade daughter attended pilot classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. "Because when kids make these kinds of decisions, we're not there."

Opponents mounted an intense campaign of letters, postcards and automated telephone calls to parents at the pilot schools before and during the lessons. PTA leaders fumed that the groups had used internal PTA directories to locate parents; protesters said there was no other way.

Amelia Rich-Remson opted her eighth-grade son out of the field test at Julius West in Rockville after conferring with a friend who had read the lessons. She said she'd rather have him be taught the dangers of drugs and keg parties than the nuances of human sexuality.

"I think he's wa-a-a-ay too young," she said. "I mean, he just turned 13. He sits on my lap. They're just little kids."

School officials said 821 students, or 91 percent of those enrolled, attended the field tests, which ended March 28. Forty-three children were absent or failed to return signed permission slips -- required for participation -- without explanation.

Leaders of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, the lead opposition group, noted that permission forms offered parents a box to check to opt in a child but none to opt out. Only parents who bothered to write "opt out" or "permission denied" on the form were counted as opt-outs.

The pilot program represents the school system's first attempt to teach sexual orientation as a formal topic; under current practice, the subject is broached only in response to a student's question.

Board members approved a new curriculum two years ago, but a federal judge struck it down, saying the lessons presented homosexuality as "a natural and morally correct lifestyle -- to the exclusion of other perspectives." U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. faulted passages that criticized some religious denominations as intolerant toward gays.

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