Sex education in Montgomery County public schools will be broadened to include a pilot program that discusses homosexuality and the use of a video that shows 10th-graders how to put on a condom.
The video, used on a trial basis at three Montgomery schools last year, will be shown to sophomores in health classes at all county high schools starting in 2005, the school board unanimously decided yesterday.
Parents will be required to sign permission slips before their children can take the sexuality component of the mandatory class, and the syllabus will be available for parental review. Teachers at Montgomery Blair, James Hubert Blake and Northwest high schools, where the video was tested, generally gave it high marks, school officials said.
As part of a resolution the board approved yesterday, discussion of "sexual variations," including homosexuality and bisexuality, will be incorporated into eighth- and 10th-grade health classes at three middle schools and three high schools. The schools have yet to be identified for the pilot program, which is to begin in the spring, according to board members.
Health teachers in Montgomery County have been allowed to discuss homosexuality since the 1970s, officials said, but only in response to student questions.
"Historically, we've avoided this issue in not a very educated way," said board Vice President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "Homosexuality is part of the world we live in. There's no moral judgment there. But we've been pretending it doesn't exist, sweeping it under the rug, and it's good we're going to address it finally."
Board President Sharon W. Cox (At Large) said the changes are, in part, a recognition that students are exposed to issues such as birth control and homosexuality through movies, cable television, the Internet and other forms of mass media. Schools have an obligation to sort fact from myth, she said.
"We're not trying to impose or supplant the values these kids are learning at home," Cox said. "But it's important for us to be realistic about this, to help children understand and thrive in the world they live in."
Across the country, some school systems have moved in the opposite direction. Last week, the Texas State Board of Education adopted new health textbooks that promote sexual abstinence and deal sparingly with contraception.
At yesterday's Montgomery County school board meeting, eight people spoke against the changes in the health curriculum, saying they are contrary to religious and family values.
Tony Castellano, a Montgomery Village resident and the parent of seven children in county schools, said he did not want his children learning about condoms in school when he was teaching abstinence at home.
He added, "We are a Catholic family and feel strongly that the school system has no right or business telling our children that . . . a homosexual orientation is acceptable."
About 1 percent of the county's high school students opt out of the sex education component of their health classes, said Dale Fulton, an associate superintendent. Those students are given three alternatives: independent study, a unit that covers only abstinence as a method of birth control or a unit on stress management.
"If the parent looks at the material, thinks their child would benefit from the material and wants the child to be exposed to the material, then we will do our best" to teach it, said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "We need to make sure we do that without imposing our will on individuals who have different belief systems or other issues with the curriculum."
The school board originally requested changes to the health education curriculum in 2002, when some teachers in the District and Prince George's County were being allowed to demonstrate condom use to students using phallic-shaped wooden blocks.
The changes adopted yesterday were the result of a report from the county's Citizens' Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development. One member of the committee spoke out against the suggestions at the board meeting, and another resigned last year in protest, said David Fishback, the committee chairman.