When you're in the fifth grade, you learn all about this stuff we're learning now . . . By the eighth grade you know all about the insides of you . . . but contraception and bisexuality -- kids need to know about that and (about) masturbation because kids are scared of it," said Chris, an earnest eighth grader at Thomas W. Pyle Junior High School in Bethesda.
A group of 13- and 14-year-olds were discussing their dissatisfaction with the sex education course, called Family Life and Human Development, that all eighth graders and Montgomery County schools must take unless their parents object.
The 10-year-old course is taught for three or four weeks, depending on teachers' schedules, in place of gym classes. Pyle students recently attended a school board meeting to tell board members they would rather play basketball than attend the sex education classes.
The students, whose names have been changed, told a reporter they are interested in sex education but find the present course too basic and repetitive to be useful. The classes cover peer relationships, puberty, reproductive systems, menstruation, fertilization, pregnancy, heredity, birth and veneral disease.
School system regulations prohibit teachers from initiating discussion of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation or "anything that gets into sexuality," said Pyle Principal Harvey Strine. Teachers also are forbidden to answer if students ask questions about these subjects.
The restrictions lead to ironies that are not lost on the students.
"They really stress how terrible VD is, how it can kill you and everything. But they're not allowed to tell you how to prevent it," said Greg. "They just keep telling you how absolutely horrible it is and someone asks how can you avoid it and they say, 'I can't tell you.'"
The confusion and frustration of which both students and teachers complain have led school authorities to order a review of sex education classes for all grades. Courses now are required in fifth and eighth grades, and are offered as electives in the 10th through 12th grades. Staff members in the division of driver, health and physical education will study the present courses and make recommendations by February 1981, according to G. C. Edward Masood, the division director.
A semester-long course now being tested in ninth grade classes may be recommended for seventh graders, he said. In addition sex education, that course includes discussion of nutrition, alcohol and drug abuse, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and family and peer relationship.
"I don't think that the way the course is set up right now that it's helpful to students as if they had discussions," said Amy. "All right, you have the book and they have diagrams and you get lectures, but . . . there's no time to discuss what if this happened, what if a guy did this, what would we do . . . That's what I think students want to know because they already know (about) most of the physical changes."
Studies in eastern urban areas show that the mean age for boy's first sexual intercourse is 12 years, 8 months and that by age 16 one in five girls has engaged in sexual relations.
Yet pregnancy prevention is not taught in public schools until the 10th grade when students are 15. Moreover, that course is elective.
Sex education consultant Deborah Hollander told the Montgomery County Council during school budget hearings last week that less than 1 percent of the entire high school student body took the course last year.
"Once they start having intercourse, we find they ask fewer and fewer questions," said Hollander. "The second thing is, they know the course is so limited. Teachers cannot bring contraceptive devices into class and the kids know that's pretty artificial."
Hollander said students should be able to ask questions and get frank answers because the current generation feels enormous pressure to be sexually active early.
"I firmly believe a sexual revolution did take place and these children are the unfortunate inheritors of that revolution. They don't know what to do with it." Hollander said. "It is the first generation to be sexually obligated. They are convinced that everybody's doing it and everybody isn't. Someone's got to say it's okay to say no."
The eighth graders at Pyle also think they are getting too little information too late.
"They waited too long to give us the information that they're giving us now.
It's to late. Most of this stuff we already know," said Paul. "Now if they're going to say we're too young to learn about these other things, by the time they get around to it, we're going to know about it already and we're going to have learned it from probably not as good a source . . . I think they should either drop it or make it good."
The course is usually taught by physical education teachers because they have had health education training, a state requirement for sex education instructors.
Principal Strine said, however, that teachers often resent having to teach a subject that is sensitive, controversial and frustrating because so many topics are taboo.
The students are quick to sense their instructors' unease.
"See, the teachers are embarrassed themselves," Paul continued.
He said the first day of the course the teacher asked students to write down questions they wanted answered.
"One of the questions was . . . 'Is it pleasant?' And he turned red like a tomato within 30 seconds . . . If this guy's afraid to talk to us about it, I feel like he didn't know what he was talking about," Paul said.
"When we started, our teacher would not even name the things that she couldn't teach us," said Amy. "She said there are two main topics I can't teach you and someone said. 'What are they?" And she said, 'Well I can't tell you.' I felt like we were putting her on the spot. I felt kind of embarrassed."
Students said they sensed the physical education teachers felt teaching sex ed. was a "burden" and a "chore," that started the course off negatively.
For their part, teachers acknowledge the situation sometimes puts them in a bind.
"I really wasn't trained to teach the class I'm teaching," said Roger Manual, a physical education teacher at Pyle who teaches sex education to boys. "It's just part of the job. My feelings are if it could be taught elsewhere by somebody else better qualified to teach it, that's fine."
Teachers did not agree with students that most already knew the material. Some are emotionally too young, in the eighth grade, and have not absorbed it yet, the instructors said.
"There's still a lot they don't really know about the basic things," said Joan H. Denton, who has been trained to teach sex education. "Usually the ones (girls) the first day that say, 'We know all this. Why are we here?'" frequently fail to master the material and are the ones who are already dating boys.
Teachers interviewed would not say whether students should get pregnancy prevention information earlier than the 10th grade.
"The problem is some should, but how do you get to the some, and how do you avoid getting into the value?" asked Denton.
The students at Pyle agreed upon some changes they would recommend for sex education for junior high school. They said eighth graders should discuss pregnancy prevention, homosexuality and masturbation, but were undecided about whether abortion should be presented in school.
They recommended that sex education be taught by a specially trained teacher who would travel from school to school teaching the course. They said they would feel more comfortable asking sensitive questions of a stranger, especially someone who felt comfortable with the topic.