he controversy over a planned birth control unit for some eighth graders in Montgomery County schools spread to the rest of the sex education curriculum last week.
As pressure mounted from conservative citizens groups, School Board member Marian L. Greenblatt asked for a "thorough investigation" of the school system's procedures for selecting all sex education materials.
Greenblatt's request to Superintendent Edward Andrews centered specifically on practices by school administration staff members and the system's Family Life Committee, a citizens advisory group appointed by the School Board. All textbooks, films and library books on sex education must be approved by the committee before they are used in schools.
Shortly after Greenblatt's action, an alternate member of the committee also demanded an investigation of the school staff, saying she and another member of the committee were in a "state of shock" at the materials sent to the committee for review.
The latest calls for scrutiny of the sex education program came as a result of growing opposition to the school system's proposal to pilot test a coed unit on birth control for eighth graders in three schools late this spring. Students would be required to have the written permission of their parents before attending the classes.
Complaints about the unit--which one school official said includes only "one day's work on contraceptive material in a six-week course"--caused several board members to insist that a public hearing be held on the matter. The motion failed, however, in a tie vote last week.
The opposition, led by Citizens United for Responsible Education (CURE), a conservative citizens group, quickly spread to an attack on books when CURE discovered the staff had sent the controversial book "Girls and Sex" by Wardell B. Pomeroy to the advisory committee two months ago. The book was banned from Montgomery schools in 1973 as inappropriate.
Although the committee rejected the book, some School Board members have questioned why the book was ever sent to the committee.
Instrumental in challenging the book was Nancy Wells, an alternate member of the committee who expanded her opposition to two other books last week. The books, "Below the Belt" by John G. Dearon and "Sex With Love" by Eleanor Hamilton, both were approved by the staff, and "Sex with Love" also was approved by the committee, Wells said. In a letter to School Board Chairman Eleanor Zappone, Wells asked for an investigation into "who in the staff is responsible for even entertaining the notion that such books might possibly be put in the hands of school children."
Dr. Lois Martin, associate superintendent for instruction, defended the staff and school procedures. "She (Wells) has many misunderstandings about our process," Martin said.
"I'm very sorry we're getting this attention based on extreme misinformation. . . . We are hearing from people who don't want sex education and who are taking every opportunity to go after sex education," Martin added. "I would like to point out that we are required by the state to have sex education and do have specific (state and county) guidelines on the whole thing."
Advisory committee Chairman Dr. Charles Schneiderman also defended the integrity of the staff and the committee. "I think we're doing an extremely good job in protecting the public's welfare," he said.
The staff is drafting a letter to Greenblatt and the School Board that will outline in detail the procedures for choosing sex education materials, Martin said. The board is expected to review the procedures at its next meeting in April.
Greenblatt, who said she acted after complaints from CURE Chairman Mary Bailey Bowen and Wells, asked in her request why the Family Life Committee approved books after only one member of the committee had reviewed them.
Dr. Schneiderman, an obstetrician who has chaired the committee for the past four years, said last week, "It never has been the practice of the committee to approve books after only one person has reviewed it, that is, without any discussion. Committee members are encouraged to take books home and screen them. . . . If a book is questioned, then it is tabled until the next meeting," he said, to give other members a chance to inspect the book.
The degree of scrutiny materials receive depends largely on how they will be used, officials said. Books and films used in class first are screened by a panel of teachers and then are screened thoroughly by the committee. Library books frequently are reviewed by one member, who then reports to the committee. Following a discussion, if no objections are raised, the committee votes on approval.
Because of the large volume of material presented to the committee, members do rely on each other's "integrity and honesty" to bring up portions of a book that they feel may be potentially controversial, Schneiderman said. "There is a lot of passing books back and forth," he said.
Referring to Wells' letter, Schneiderman said, "It just seems unfortunate that one person can create such a large turmoil."
Schneiderman pointed out that Wells is not officially a member of the committee. She was designated an alternate by the United Community Ministry, one of 22 organizations asked to propose committee members. The School Board, which makes committee appointments, did not name Wells to the group and does not appoint alternates. The committee operates informally, however, and when Wells attended a meeting last month, she was allowed to review several books.
Wells began her challenge to committee and staff practices after she took her first reviewing assignment for the committee last month. The book was "Girls and Sex."
At the following meeting, Wells told the committee she was stunned by portions of the book that said some girls "masturbate with cucumbers and bananas." She was equally upset that the staff had sent the book, a revised version of the copy banned in 1973, to the committee for consideration, she said.
"It's time for me to speak out," she said last week. "Something's very wrong inside the staff."
Schneiderman argues that "Nancy Wells made a big to-do about the fact that we even considered it ('Girls and Sex'). How can we reject it if we haven't even seen it?"
When complaints about the staff handling of the book came up a few weeks ago, Frances Dean, director of instructional services, said, "It is not my job to restrict anything." She said she feels "obliged to pass along to the committee" books that publishers send to the school system. She said it is the committee's responsibility to determine which books are appropriate after seeing a broad range of what is available.
With her challenge to the two other books last week, Wells included several pages of the books with offensive material underlined.
Passages from "Sex with Love," which is approved for library use for eighth grade and above, described sexual intercourse, petting, masturbation and oral sex, and included a long list of sex slang words with their corresponding scientific names.
Schneiderman said he had not seen the passages and did not specifically remember the book. He did defend the discussion of such topics under state bylaws for the sex education program, however.
"Nothing is wrong with the discussion of these things in a sex education program," he said. "You can't go in there and teach history. Most of these things are not erotic descriptions. They are statements of fact; . . . if you're hiding that information from students, where do you want them to get it?"
Schneiderman acknowledged that in many cases subjective judgments must be made. For instance, he said the state bylaws forbid discussion of "erotic techniques of human intercourse," but do allow discussions of sexual deviations. When read a passage from "Sex with Love" that says, "Many lovers like to kiss each other's genitals--and this is perfectly normal," Schneiderman said he did not think that passage was "erotic."
Wells maintains that passage and many others are in violation of state guidelines.
Schneiderman said that no one's views should be "stifled" at the committee meetings, "but most of the members of the committee," which has included several clergymen, "feel comfortable with accepting a certain level of information and not calling it erotic."
He concluded, given the state mandate that sex education be taught, "How else are you supposed to talk about it, if you don't talk about it?"
A recent incident at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring provoked renewed criticism of school officials' handling of sex education material, however. During a health fair at the school two weeks ago, unapproved birth control information prepared by Planned Parenthood was displayed and given to students. The display was pulled by the principal after complaints from parents. Greenblatt has asked the superintendent for a report on the incident.