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Defining Terms Solves Michigan Sex Education Dispute

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A "minor amendment," passed over the summer by the Michigan legislature, has relieved state education officials of a troubling task handed to them last May by the state Attorney General: eliminating sex education from all required courses in Michigan's public schools.

By defining more precisely the meaning of "class" and "course," the legislature clarified the intent of the law, allowing sex education--taught in virtually all districts--to remain in required courses.

The possibility that the state might have to take action arose in the spring of 1981 when a parent demanded that her child be excused from home economics--a course that included child care, which falls under Michigan's definition of sex education.

A Broad Definition

The State Attorney General ruled that sex education should be taught only as an elective. The pertinent state law said that students could be excused from any "class" or "course" that included sex education. And, since Michigan uses a broad definition of sex education, many courses--health, home economics, science--that include discussion of child care, family relationships, or reproduction fall under this rule.

Prodded by the attorney general's ruling, education-department officials began planning a set of guidelines to allow school districts to continue offering sex education, while placing it outside the required curriculum.

Under consideration over the summer were such options as having a sex-education instructor who would travel to several elementary schools to teach sex education. Students who did not elect to take the course could then remain in their regular classrooms. In secondary schools, education department officials pondered the possibility of offering two science courses, only one of which would include sex education. Students and their parents could then decide between the two.

The state legislature found a simpler solution. It adopted a legislative amendment before school started this fall which declares that a "course" is made up of many "classes." Hence, under the new amendment, a student may be excused from classes during which sex education is taught--several days of health or biology, for example. But he or she may not be excused from an entire course on the grounds that it includes sex education.

Either students or parents may initiate the request to be excused from sex-education classes, says Wanda H. Jubb, health-education specialist in the state education department. She notes that so far, few students are opting out of sex education, at either their own or their parents' request.

School officials will provide an "equivalent educational experience'' for those students who do not take sex education, according to Ms. Jubb.--S.W.

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