For more than a year now, members of the Charles County school board have been watching Montgomery County. They saw the proposed sex education curriculum last year that included discussions of homosexuality and videos on using condoms. They looked on as impassioned parents fought all the way to federal court to kill the program.
And after they had seen enough, the Charles board members took a vote to make it official: They didn't like what they saw.
So the Charles Board of Education drew up a list of positions on the subject: in favor of laws to restrict teachers from discussing homosexuality, to emphasize abstinence and to oppose demonstrations of how to put on a condom.
Board members then handed out the list to other elected leaders of Charles this month at an annual get-together over breakfast. Surprised by the passionate positions on laws that anyone had yet to propose, some county commissioners and state representatives said they weren't sure how to respond.
"That was one of the first items they brought up," said Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles). "They insisted we not do anything that would require them to do anything. It was an interesting exchange."
But the county teachers union and others in the community see the list as further proof that recent changes in the school board have made it a staunchly conservative and moralizing body. And they worry that it might become even more so in coming weeks, as the board meets behind closed doors to choose its newest member.
"In writing something like that -- reacting to something that hasn't even come up yet -- leads me to believe they must hold some very strong opinions," said Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata). "I was disappointed by that. We as leaders and educators need to teach tolerance and respect. Why are we even making this an issue?"
Margaret Young, chairwoman of the school board, said the board is trying to be proactive after seeing what happened in Montgomery, which has started from scratch on its sex education curriculum.
"This is just so our legislators know our opinion in case anything comes across their desks," she said.
Not all board members agreed with the preemptive move.
"I thought we wasted valuable time talking about sex ed when it's not even a problem in Charles," said board member Donald M. Wade. "Even if it was an issue, we need the input from parents before we, as a few members on the board, start dictating what we want in the schools."
Some teachers said they were particularly alarmed by the board's support of "legislation restricting instructors from discussing sexual lifestyles (i.e., bisexuality, homosexuality, etc.)" and equated it to supporting a gag order on teachers.
"My question is: If a kid raises a question in class, what do I do?" said James Campbell, who taught a family life course for 13 years at McDonough High School. "Do I just say, 'Sorry, I can't answer that'?"
Young called that notion ridiculous. "Nobody's saying a teacher can't answer a question," she said. "We're saying we don't want a curriculum that purposefully discusses alternate sexual lifestyles in a positive way."
The duty of explaining many sexual issues to children should fall to parents, not the schools, she added. Young said she had pulled her daughter out of a fifth-grade health class about eight years ago after seeing a sex education video used in class.
"I didn't like what I saw," she said. "It planted seeds that didn't need to be planted. So I asked for her to be sent to the library instead with grammar" exercises.
Many of the proposals on the legislative list are already in place in Charles. The school system uses an abstinence-based curriculum to teach sex education in health classes. In ninth grade, students must receive parental approval before taking a health class that includes such subjects as sexually transmitted diseases, dating and birth control but emphasizes abstinence as the safest choice, said Darlene Kahl, who coordinates the county health curriculum.
The Charles school board drew much attention last year for a "brainstorming" list that included suggestions to eliminate science books that are "biased toward evolution" and to offer Bibles to students. Some people who criticized those ideas believe that the ongoing selection of a new board member behind closed doors will make the board even more conservative.
Charles and Montgomery are the only jurisdictions in Maryland where the school board fills its own vacancies. When Montgomery last filled a vacant seat, in 2004, the proceedings were public. This week state delegates, county commissioners and teachers urged the Charles school board to open its process to the public.