Thursday, February 15, 2007

Marc Fisher on the Gum Game

The Washington Post's Marc Fisher rang in on the "gum game" this morning, saying a few things that people may be thinking but not saying out loud.

Fisher wrote a nice column last year about some things we said here on the TTF blog, and you know he's been following the sex-ed controversy here in Montgomery County. So it's not entirely surprising that he would have something to say about this.

--Also, he's gone out and talked to people, and has some new information.
In the matter of the "gum game" -- the yucky attempt in Montgomery County schools to impress upon teenagers the dangers of sexual promiscuity by asking them to share a piece of gum -- all involved now appear to be appalled at themselves.

"In hindsight, it's gross and disgusting," says Gail Tierney, founder and head of the Rockville Pregnancy Center, the evangelical, antiabortion clinic that taught abstinence classes to thousands of Montgomery schoolchildren until the gum hit the fan. Don't Gum Up Sex-Ed; Leave Instruction to Professional Teachers

In hindsight? It's gross and disgusting any way you look at it.

It would be the grown-up's job to see this fact in foresight.
"It's a disgusting, gross exercise that no adult should have asked a child to do, no matter what the purpose," says Brian Edwards, spokesman for the county school system, which has now banned the Pregnancy Center from public classrooms.

And, we find out, it's been going on for nine years.

But Fisher is going to make them squirm. Because, look, this isn't just about the gum.
Okay, the game is revolting, and the group is gone -- we got that. But I still have questions: Why, exactly, was teaching about sensitive and difficult issues of sexual activity and sexually transmitted disease outsourced? And why was this job entrusted to the Pregnancy Center, which says its abstinence program is based on the belief that "pregnancy is not the root problem, but a symptom of a lifestyle that is outside of God's will"?

"It's a mystery why this group was approved by the central office," Edwards tells me. I appreciate his candor, but if I were a Montgomery parent, I'd be keen to see that mystery solved.

I've already said that this part of it doesn't bother me. And maybe that's because I trust my kids to be resilient. They are, shall we say, very skeptical about anything an adult tells them. My son gets up and goes to a Baptist church some Sundays. Well, the preacher has a couple of cute daughters, and his girlfriend goes there, so he's pretty motivated. But the fact is, sitting in a pew thanking God for his good fortune is an OK thing to do. It balances out the South Park and ebaumsworld, let's say. He used to attend services at a neighborhood synagogue with a friend, same thing. He's a steady kind of kid, and exposure to some religious ideas will give him something to think about, but it's not going to rock his world in any major way.

So, personally, I don't worry about it, but then, we seem to be more liberal than some parents.

Fisher continues.
Tierney notes that the county repeatedly approved the Pregnancy Center's abstinence program, which was presented to more than 6,500 Montgomery eighth- and 10th-graders last year. She produces a stack of evaluations of the program by teachers and students, many of whom singled out the gum game for praise as a dramatic way to get across the role peer pressure plays in making bad decisions.

But the Pregnancy Center is not entirely aboveboard here. The six-page synopsis of the "Worth the Wait" program that the center submitted for the school system's approval goes into great detail about some exercises used in the class. For example, there are 27 sentences about the No STDs Game, in which kids pass around slips of paper naming different outcomes of random sexual contact, the idea being to demonstrate the nasty surprises awaiting those who hook up.

Here, in contrast, is the entire description of the gum game: "Gum game. Discuss results."

Ah, yeah, he gotcha with that one, lady.

And here's the full text submitted about another favorite exercise that won't be used anymore: "Exlax game."

In this game, students were handed squares of Hershey's chocolate, but before they popped the candy, they were told that a few kids had instead received Ex-Lax laxatives. Still want to eat it? Few did, and, in fact, Tierney assures me that although this exercise "really freaks them out," it is only a mind game designed to drive home the idea of random risk -- no laxatives were distributed to students.

Oh yeah, wonderful idea. Brilliant. Passing out medication in class. Laxatives, no less.


And oh so fun.
These games are certainly popular. On an evaluation form, one student gave the exercise high marks: "If you refuse to risk taking a laxative, why risk having unprotected sex?" A Springbrook High teacher noted that students were still "wearing the buttons" -- pro-abstinence pins that say "I'm Worth The Wait!" -- even days after the class.

Still, the gum game was wildly inappropriate, says Brenda Willett, whose son was the eighth student to chew a piece of gum in a class at Churchill High in Potomac. "Are our health teachers devoid of any common sense?" asks Willett, who wants the county to test all children who chewed the pre-munched gum for STDs, mono and other contagions.

Doctors say it's not likely that anyone caught anything from the gum, even if 15 students did chew the same revolting ball of spit at Poolesville High, leaving precious few kids for the abstinence educator to praise for resisting peer pressure.

Who would know? At Einstein, I know of at least one kid in the class who was on antibiotics for a respiratory infection. Nobody went back, as far as I know, and checked a couple of weeks later to see how everybody was doing.

And anyway, as I said before -- I'd think a kid would figure, with all these people saying you don't really catch anything from the gum, that you don't really catch anything from sex, either. Yeah, it gets the Pregnancy Center off the hook, but it also defeats the purpose of the demonstration, totally.
The primary problem here is not one of goals or even of tactics -- teaching the value of abstinence until an age of greater emotional maturity is a fine idea, and as dumb as these games are, they're not nearly as harmful as rampant sexual activity by 14-year-olds.

No, the main issue here is the one that gums up communication between adults and teens in the first place. Sex is hard to talk about, and not everyone agrees on the right message. Battered by years of debate over sex education, the Montgomery school system was relieved to offload some of the job to outsiders.

Especially when those outsiders had members of the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum on the board of directors and on the advisory board.

Throw the CRC a bone, and see how long that takes to backfire on you.

OK, see if you want to walk down this road with Mr. Fisher:
Those outsiders have a hidden agenda of their own. Tierney assures me there is no religious content to the school lessons. But her abstinence instructor says she makes a point of offering each class free pregnancy tests at the center. There, Tierney shows me how each woman who comes in for a test gets the full-court antiabortion press: a showcase of cute little plastic fetuses, a walk through a treasure chest of baby clothes, a video on the ravages of abortion and a sonogram "so they can hear the beating heart and see that this is a real, live baby," Tierney says.

"If a woman is totally panic-stricken and confused, if she wants to know that God loves her and has a plan for her, we're here for her," she says. "If she doesn't want to hear it, fine. There's no condemnation."

Wow, what a positive message.

Hey, wait a minute. These are CRC guys here. Why aren't they being paranoid? Why aren't they whining that people are discriminating against them? Why aren't they claiming that this is all because people are prejudiced against their religion?
Tierney suspects the school system was "looking for a way to get rid of us" because of the center's religious, antiabortion perspective. Edwards says religion played no role in the approval or expulsion of the center.

Tierney is searching for a way back into the system's good graces: "If we're not there, who is going to give them the abstinence message?" How about the professionals we pay to do the job -- the teachers?

Oh. There it it.

I'm getting the feeling they aren't getting back into the classroom.

And in fact, I hope the school district is looking into that comment the other day about "after school" meetings. Those aren't happening on campus, are they?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Few people agree that the gum game was a good idea. Still, it is possible to be hyperbolic about it.

Here's something to consider:

It never would have happened, nad gone on for nine years, if parents were more involved and informed. Teachers, apparently, never had a problem with it.

The school has failed to deliver the abstinence message because not many people employed by the school whole-heartedly believe in it. RPC did, and it sounds like their program was having an effect.

February 15, 2007 1:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

more good news from the surge front:

"The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq was wounded and an aide was killed in a clash Thursday with Iraqi forces north of Baghdad, the Interior Ministry spokesman said."

February 15, 2007 8:26 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

So, Anon, what do you suppose that means? Before we attacked Iraq, there was no "al Qaeda in Iraq."

Are you thinking this is a turning point in the war? Did you think this was a war against al Qaeda?

Just wondering.


February 15, 2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Anon- I have a nice piece of ocean front property in Nevada. I can sell it to you for a very good price.

February 15, 2007 9:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't listen to the global warming nuts, Andrea. Their will be no beachfront property in Nevada.

Global warming's been cancelled. First the hurricane season that was supposed to rage from global warming didn't produce one hurricane to hit the U.S..

Now, we're having the coldest friggin' February in a decade.

February 15, 2007 10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, we're having the coldest friggin' February in a decade.

That's not saying very much.

The decade from 1997-2007 was the warmest ever. According to the US EPA: "The warmest global average temperatures on record have all occurred within the past 15 years, with the warmest two years being 1998 and 2005."

February 16, 2007 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In spite of increasing carbon emissions, global temperatures dipped from 1950-1975. Everyone thought a new ice age was starting. Now, inexplicably, the past year is not following the pattern expected by Al Bore. Maybe Mother Nature doing another correction.

February 16, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Anon, you don't get it, do you? Ever.

February 16, 2007 1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a compelling and thoughtful analysis, Andrea

February 16, 2007 1:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Life is such a chore for poor Al Gore these days. Check out how bored he looks in the picture on the front page of The Washington Post's Style section today.

February 17, 2007 9:55 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Wow! What a victory for the right! A picture where Al Gore might look bored!

Rally the Fighting Keyboarders!


February 17, 2007 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You think he looks bored standing that close to Cameron Diaz? That was the farthest thought from my mind!

February 18, 2007 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice design of blog.

August 13, 2007 3:22 PM  

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