Montgomery County schools will exclude any reference to specific religious beliefs from its soon-to-be revised sex education curriculum -- but may still include discussion of sexual orientation -- under the terms of an agreement approved by the school board last night.
The deal is the product of negotiations between the board and two parent groups that sued the school system over a previous rewrite of the curriculum. The settlement, approved by a 7 to 0 vote, also requires the system to reimburse the parent groups -- Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and the Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays -- $36,000 for attorneys' fees. Board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) was absent.
The previous curriculum, adopted in November and suspended last month, allowed teachers to discuss homosexuality with eighth-graders and show 10th-graders a video demonstration of how to put on a condom. Last night's settlement does not bar the school board from including discussion of homosexuality in the new curriculum, which the school system will develop during the next school year.
It does, however, address the two groups' objections to resource materials that had been distributed for teacher use only. The materials included articles that in some cases described religious denominations, such as Baptists, as less tolerant of homosexuality. The groups argued that such viewpoints might find their way into the classroom. Last month, a federal judge, expressing similar concerns, extended a temporary restraining order in the case through the end of the year so that a settlement could be reached.
"We were prepared for a good fight in court, if necessary, but it would have been costly in terms of both time and resources," said school Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "Reasonable leadership of this school system requires that we find a way of settling this dispute without compromising the Board of Education's sole authority over the curriculum of our school system."
As part of the settlement, the board agreed to continue to allow two members from the parent groups on a reconstituted citizens advisory board that will provide guidance on the curriculum overhaul. The board also will hold public meetings for parents before the new program begins, as it had done in the past. Parents will be able to review the curriculum and teacher resource materials.
For the plaintiffs, the settlement was a mixed victory.
"We're very happy that the board pulled the other curriculum that we challenged, but we wished we could have gotten more," said Rena Lindevaldsen, senior litigator with the Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based legal and education nonprofit group that argued on behalf of the two groups. Lindevaldsen said they had hoped to get assurances from the school system that the ex-gay viewpoint would be reflected in the curriculum and that the program would do more to address the health risks associated with homosexuality. But she said the school system would not agree. Still, she said, she felt the agreement included important procedural commitments that would ensure that parents are given adequate notice about the revised curriculum's content and are able to see all teacher resource materials that will be used.
Those who supported the curriculum said they were happy that the lawsuit was over but troubled by the financial payout. "We are very pleased that the local community retained control of the curriculum here in Montgomery County but distressed that this has turned into a $36,000 bonus for the Liberty Counsel," said Chris Grewell, a Montgomery parent who works with a Web site that supports the sex-education curriculum.
As board members voted, about 20 parents and students sitting in the back of the room held up placards that said: "Teach the facts."
Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.