ANNAPOLIS, OCT. 6 -- A Maryland legislative committee approved an emergency regulation tonight requiring AIDS education in all Maryland public schools by the end of this school year, allowing it to begin as early as third grade.
State education officials said they proposed the regulation to calm children's fears about the deadly and fast-spreading acquired immune deficiency syndrome and to teach them how they can avoid getting it. Legislators agreed tonight that such education is needed after arguing about when it should begin, how explicitly sexual transmission of the disease should be described, and whether parental consent should be required.
The regulation was approved on a 9-to-5 vote of the General Assembly's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Commitee, which rules on emergency regulations from state agencies. The AIDS regulation has been attacked by some parents, interest groups and legislators who argue that instruction would begin at too early an age and without parental permission.
In response to such protests, the proposed regulation was changed last week to make it clear that local school systems must consult parents while drawing up their specific AIDS education programs, and that instruction must be appropriate for the age of the students being taught.
Because AIDS is passed primarily by sexual intercourse, and because homosexuals practicing anal intercourse have so far been the main victims of the disease, the idea of teaching about AIDS and its transmission has alarmed many parents and religious fundamentalists.
"They are stripping parental authority out of the hands of parents," Jim Keiper of St. Mary's County, who has two sons in elementary school, complained after the meeting of the committee, which acts on emergency regulations proposed by state agencies. "How can you teach them about AIDS without teaching them about homosexual activity?"
The new Maryland regulation comes at a time when school systems across the country are debating how and when to teach about AIDS. William J. Bennett, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, today issued a guide to AIDS education that eschews teaching about condoms and emphasizes abstinence as a safeguard against AIDS.
The federal guide suggested that schools can wait to teach about AIDS until sex education courses are given in junior high school. However, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has said that AIDS instruction should start in early elementary school.
Several state and local education officials said today that the provision allowing instruction as early as third grade was important to them because many young children express fears about AIDS after hearing bits of information about it. But grade school instructors have been prevented from teaching about AIDS because of a 1970 regulation barring sex education in elementary schools. The new regulation allows instruction about sex only as it relates to AIDS.
"The kids today do not live in a vacuum," said Michael Schaffer, supervisor of health education for Prince George's County schools. "They have heard a lot about AIDS from the media. Just about every evening news broadcast during prime family viewing time has some report on AIDS . . . . Kids are going to have questions about it."
"The issue we're trying to deal with for younger children is how AIDS isn't spread," said Russell G. Hencke, a state health education specialist. "We're trying to get away from this fear, this form of hysteria, that is sometimes called up by AIDS." Most schools would probably offer AIDS instruction in fifth or sixth grades, rather than in third grade, Hencke said.
"If children are taught the means by which AIDS is transmitted, essentially the school will be teaching homosexuality to our children," Harford County Council member J. Robert Hooper wrote to the committee last month. "But, of course, teachers are not allowed to make any moral judgment, so students will be instructed in homosexuality void of morality."
Currently, some form of AIDS education is taught to high school students, and in some cases middle school students, in Maryland, except in Harford and Somerset counties, where school officials hope to start programs before the end of the school year.