Maryland County Wrangles Over Health Class Curriculum
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Public schools are seeing some of the fiercest combat in today's culture wars. Many religious conservative parents are fed up with what they see as a liberal academic agenda. They're feeling emboldened by the re-election of President Bush. More liberal parents worry that their kids may be subjected to religious ideology. This week in Montgomery County, Maryland, a group of parents sued the local school board over a new health class. As part of NPR's series on Christianity and the public square, our religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports on the debate over sex education in Montgomery County.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:
On a recent Saturday morning 200 or so parents filled an auditorium to wrestle with what they see as an extremist takeover of their public schools.
Mr. STEVE FISHER (Spokesman, Citizens For A Responsible Curriculum): So if everyone would please take your seats, I'd like...
HAGERTY: Steve Fisher is the spokesman for Citizens For A Responsible Curriculum, a group of parents who are fighting the new sex education program. The pilot classes include sections on preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. At this meeting the group played the new video to be shown in the 10th grade health class.
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HAGERTY: During the MTV-like video, a 20-something blond woman speaks for 50 seconds about abstinence, then spends six minutes on condoms.
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Unidentified Woman: Before you use condoms, remember these helpful hints: Choose latex condoms, not lambskin...
HAGERTY: And while the condom video surprised some people, it was the new curriculum on homosexuality that raised hackles. Among other things, the new class for eighth- and 10th-graders states that `sexual orientation is not a choice but a natural response' and that, quote, "sex play with friends of the same gender is not uncommon during early adolescence." Speakers criticized the curriculum in particular and the culture in general. Don Dwyer, a state delegate from Anne Arundel County, told parents that they had fallen asleep during the culture wars and now must reclaim the public schools.
Mr. DON DWYER (State Delegate, Anne Arundel County): Do you realize that the homosexual agenda--not homosexuals but the agenda--is a cultural predator? And it's going after the minds of our most vulnerable, which are our children.
HAGERTY: In fact, the parents filed suit in federal court this week asking the judge to stop the voluntary pilot program. Today the judge agreed to temporarily delay the curriculum. Michelle Turner, who's the president of Citizens For A Responsible Curriculum, says the group has no other agenda than protecting their kids.
Ms. MICHELLE TURNER (President, Citizens For A Responsible Curriculum): We have been called every name under the sun. We are intolerant homophobes. We are religious zealots who are trying to ramrod our religion down people's throats. And that's not who or what we are. We just want the kids in this county to be protected from what they may not be ready for or for what their parents do not want.
HAGERTY: Ellen Castellano says it's bad enough that kids are assaulted by sexual imagery everywhere they look. They don't need a schoolteacher telling them how to put on condoms or raising questions about their sexual identity.
Ms. ELLEN CASTELLANO: My 13- and 15-year-olds, sorry, this is not appropriate for them. I'm trying to raise them to be, at this point in their life, sexually inactive. They keep asking over and over again, `What is your sexual expression?' What is the school system doing saying this to my kids?
HAGERTY: It is a complaint that Julie Underwood hears practically every day. Underwood is general counsel for the National School Boards Association. She says in her 20 years of education law, she's never seen the barrage of complaints that are being lodged today.
Ms. JULIE UNDERWOOD (General Counsel, National School Boards Association): Questions about teaching creationism and intelligent design in the schools, questions about prayer in school, prayer at graduation, prayer at football games. You've got the Bible as literature. I could probably give you a hundred different instances where school districts might get embroiled in litigation just in the topic of religion.
HAGERTY: She believes conservatives are emboldened by Christian public interest law firms that offer to pay the legal fees if a group wants to sue. For example, Liberty Counsel, a law group founded by Jerry Falwell, is helping the parents in Montgomery County. And while it might be tempting to accede to conservative demands, Underwood says, schools have to remember that there are culture warriors on the other side as well.
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HAGERTY: This is where Chris Gruel(ph) wages battle, at the subway station in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Ms. CHRIS GRUEL (Parent): Political activism doesn't come naturally to me, but protecting my children certainly does, and that's why I'm here.
HAGERTY: Gruel stands outside the station as commuters stream by armed with a clipboard, a petition in support of the new sex ed curriculum and this pitch to the passersby.
Ms. GRUEL: I am here because we support the Board of Education in this new curriculum, and I would be ask if you would be willing to sign the petition to support them, too?
Unidentified Man: Sure. I'd be happy to do that.
Ms. GRUEL: Thank you.
HAGERTY: On another day another parent, Nancy Greenfield, who performs ultrasounds at Washington Adventist Hospital, says she believes the condom video is appropriate. `Teaching abstinence is fine,' she says, `but 50 percent of high schoolers have sex, and they need to know how to do it safely.'
Ms. NANCY GREENFIELD (Parent): I scan on a regular basis 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds who are pregnant. To say that by keeping this information out of the schools, they won't have sex and they won't get pregnant, it's just absurd.
HAGERTY: `And so is ignoring homosexuality,' says Chris Gruel, who, with Greenfield and some other parents, started their own group, TeachTheFacts.org. Gruel says a lot of kids question their sexual orientation, and the old curriculum simply skirted that fact.
Ms. GRUEL: And if you were a gay student, you would be completely marginalized. It's as if you did not exist or should not exist. And in that, in a sense, is a value and a judgment being put on them, and I don't think that's right. I think we need to include everyone in the health education curriculum.
HAGERTY: What bothers Jim Kennedy, whose son will be in the 10th grade next year, is that the other side seems emboldened since the 2004 election. It's as if, he says, the conservatives won the political battle and now feel they can impose their values on other people's children.
Mr. JIM KENNEDY (Parent): I can't stop a country that wants to go to war. I can't force corporations to practice environmentally clean policies. But these guys have come into my neighborhood and tried to say that my kids should learn their beliefs, and this is just where I draw the line.
HAGERTY: Tres Kerns says, `The same could be said for them, couldn't it?'
Mr. TRES KERNS (President, TakeBackMaryland.org): I mean, do they have the right to impose their morals on us?
HAGERTY: Kerns is president of TakeBackMaryland.org, a conservative family organization. He says what's in collision here are two world views, and schools have come down squarely on one side.
Mr. KERNS: A lot of people of faith realize that academia is actually teaching, basically, that there is no God and that secular humanism is the prevailing thought or value system in the school system.
HAGERTY: He believes it's too late to save the public schools, but many parents don't, which may mean that the local public school will be a battleground for the foreseeable future. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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