Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Post Surveys the Sex-Ed Landscape

Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise has been on the phone a lot, it sounds like. This morning he addresses a pretty good question -- how unusual is it for Montgomery County to teach about sexual orientation? To hear the CRC tell it, you'd think we were the only place in the world that ever tried this.
In Seattle public schools, sexual orientation is taught in ninth-grade health class, a one-day session that uses vignettes about fictitious teens to illustrate same-sex and opposite-sex attraction. But the topic can arise as early as grade 5, in discussions on the many changes that accompany puberty.

In Salt Lake City, schools do not address sexual orientation, in health class or anywhere else.

By adding 90 minutes of instruction about sexual orientation to eighth- and 10th-grade health classes this year, including contested material on homophobia, transsexuality and the process of "coming out," Montgomery County joins an increasingly polarized debate on how -- if at all -- sex-education classes should discuss sexuality. The Wide Spectrum Of Sex-Ed Courses: Montgomery Veers Toward Liberal End On Homosexuality

As for that headline, I doubt you would really say Montgomery "Veers Toward Liberal End." I think you could say "Montgomery County Votes Liberal On Everything." Not to quibble. It's just how we are here, not that every single person agrees to it. We're a very diverse and well-educated county, and our values reflect that.

It's a long, informative article, and I'm going to skip through it for the blog here. Put on some shoes and a sweatshirt or something, go outside into the soggy, melting ice, and pick up your paper. This is Page One of the second section.

Or fill up your cup, click on the link, and read it on the computer, you lazy bum.
In most of the country, the trend in sex education is toward "abstinence only," which dictates that sex outside of marriage is wrong and potentially dangerous. Such programs tend to bypass homosexuality, except to characterize gay sex as a public health risk.

At the same time, school systems in politically liberal communities are expanding the lexicon of sex and gender identity in health classes. Homosexuality is one of many topics covered under the umbrella of "comprehensive" sex education, which teaches students how to be comfortable with their sexuality and safe in sexual practice.

Seattle teachers tell ninth-grade health classes, "There are probably some people here who are gay, lesbian and bisexual. . . . Some people here may believe that homosexual behavior is wrong." Students take a sexual-orientation quiz: When do people first realize they are gay? (Answer: usually by their teens.) If one of your parents is gay or lesbian, are the chances greater that you will be, too? (Answer: no.)

I never knew what they did in other places. I remember a while back when somebody proposed to the school board that they should look at what other Maryland counties teach, and I thought -- who cares what they do? I don't want us to be like <pick county>, I'd prefer that they try to be like us.
Those who monitor sex-education trends say there's no telling how many school systems teach about sexual orientation, but the subject is largely absent from the curriculum across much of the South and in land-locked mountain states. SIECUS counts nine states that require "something negative" if sexual orientation is taught, such as characterizing homosexuality as unacceptable behavior.

The topic is more accepted, although not nearly pervasive, along the West Coast and in the Northeast. Health teachers in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and throughout Massachusetts consistently teach about homosexuality, according to Judy Chiasson, a Los Angeles educator who wrote a portion of the lessons adopted in Montgomery.

There's a sidebar with this article that talks about several other states. You can link to it HERE. (By the way, thanks to digger for posting these links into the comments this morning.) It's kind of a hodge-podge sample, but you get the idea. Alabama, for instance, would meet the CRC's approval.
A 2004 poll by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government found that 25 percent of Americans deem homosexuality and sexual orientation inappropriate topics for sex education. A separate question yielded a narrow majority of Americans, 52 percent, who think schools should teach what homosexuality is but not whether it is right or wrong.

"I think a big swath of the population is opposed to promoting homosexuality," said Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando nonprofit group that advocates religious freedom and the traditional family.

Heh-heh. Yeah, Matt. A big swath of one person in four, compared to more than half who think schools should do what Montgomery County is doing.

Now, this I didn't know. Currently the state requires schools to teach about "sexual variations" in the health curriculum. But ...
This spring, Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill, unlikely to pass, that would amend the state Constitution with a ban on teaching about same-sex relationships in public schools.

Of course it won't pass, but maybe it'll generate a little discussion, people can make their points pro and con, and everybody will be a little bit better-informed for it.

More repercussions from our circumstance of living in the Bush Years:
Several organizations, including SIECUS, have noted a sharp rise in recent years in the number of schools and systems whose sex-ed lessons stress abstinence. They point to the role of the federal government, which since the mid-1990s has required a strict abstinence-only approach as a condition for substantial federal funds. Such programs, the government says, should endorse sex only in the confines of marriage, one reason they tend to skirt homosexuality.

"Abstinence-only by definition sort of wrote any gay issues out of the curriculum," said Jean-Marie Navetta, spokeswoman for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "I mean, gays can't get married. It sounds like a ridiculous premise, but it actually works."

We know that about half of teens have sex by the time they graduate from high school, it's too late to stick your thumb in that particular dike. But the federal government wants schools to teach kids to "just say no" to sex, and that's it. No information, just encouragement not to do that.

It's like how the administration supports the troops, by saying they support the troops.
About one-third of all school systems with policies on sex education require that abstinence be taught as the only option for the unmarried, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York sexual-health think tank. A larger group, about half of school systems, stipulates that abstinence be the "preferred option" for teens while allowing instruction in contraception and other topics associated with comprehensive sex-education. Virtually every school system, including Montgomery's, includes abstinence somewhere in its sex-education lessons.

A new condom-demonstration lesson for Montgomery 10th-graders makes 21 references to abstinence, including, "Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease."

Yes, I think we hit a good balance. MCPS gives students reasons not to have sex, and also gives them clear instruction on how to minimize the risks if they do decide to. I can't imagine how to do it any better than that.
Chiasson said "countless" schools and school systems include homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality in their curricula. Although few mainstream textbooks devote space to the topic, she said in an e-mail, "good teachers utilize supplemental materials to complement textbooks' limitations."

Los Angeles schools cover sexual orientation over one to three days of the ninth-grade health course. Objectives include defining the terms homosexual, bisexual and transgender, identifying "challenges that young people may face in the process of self discovery" and explaining "why a person would want to come out about his or her sexual orientation."

Washington area school systems range in approach from liberal Montgomery to comparatively conservative enclaves in Northern Virginia, where some schools don't teach about sexual orientation.

I am skipping a short review of nearby school districts. Summary: they vary.

We've got a fight on our hands here, as a conservative group finds themselves at odds with the prevailing progressive climate of Montgomery County, and tries to drag the majority along with their wishes. But we're not the only place with this kind of trouble.
In the past two years, SIECUS has tabulated about a dozen well-publicized controversies over homosexuality at schools across the nation. The most famous involved a parent in Lexington, Mass., who objected to a fairy tale about two princes called "King and King." None quite resembled the fracas in Montgomery.

Disputes over sex-education seldom reach federal court, Staver said, because matters of curriculum are mostly left to local school boards. Many states, including Virginia and Maryland, explicitly permit parents to opt out if they don't like the lessons. Or, they can simply withdraw from the school.

I'm glad this reporter did this research.

The thing is, when we're deciding what's right and wrong, it doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks. If other communities want to jump off a cliff, does that mean we should? We look around, we see our gay friends and neighbors, and we see gay middle and high-school students and troubles they have, and we can say -- why shouldn't we teach something about this?

I never really wondered what anybody else does, but now that de Vise's looked into it, I'm glad to know. What we're asking is not so extreme. True, some places can't handle it or don't want it, but a lot can and do. MCPS was wise to turn to a team of pediatricians to put together a curriculum that was medically and scientifically sound, and we know certain types of people will squawk about it, but they missed their chance. In the long run, the citizens of Montgomery County will end up with a curriculum that they can be proud of. We're not following the pack, but we aren't asking for anything that is entirely unique, either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To hear the CRC tell it, you'd think we were the only place in the world that ever tried this.


CRC thinks their mailings to parents in schools and those automated phone calls to parents urging them to opt their kids out will be successful.

So far it has not and again has riled PTAs up about CRC misusing PTA directories again.

I would think school PTAs just might ask MCCPTA to step in again to protect family information in school directories.


March 18, 2007 2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are not the only place in the world that ever tried this. MCPS is not even the only place in the Washington metropolitan area to try this.

From a couple of bullets in an MCPS Fact Sheet entitled "Facts About the Health Education Curriculum"
(, we learn:

FACT: At least four school districts in the Washington metropolitan area already include a condom use demonstration as a part of their curriculum. (Howard, Prince George's, District of Columbia, and Baltimore City)...

FACT: At least five school districts in the Washington metropolitan areas already include instruction about sexual orientation in their curriculum. (Howard, Prince George's, Fairfax, District of Columbia, and Baltimore City)

March 20, 2007 4:06 PM  

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