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Health Educators Seek Help in Handling Controversy

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RESTON, VA.--For precollege health educators, whose daily lesson plans include such emotionally loaded topics as sex, contraception, drugs, and abortion, knowing how to navigate controversy successfully is an essential job skill.

Yet few health educators have significant training in responding to controversy, observers say, leaving them unprepared when public discontent emerges over the content of their curricula.

To help address the issue, health teachers, district and state curriculum coordinators, and health-education professors gathered here last month at the American Association of Health Educators' annual summer institute to discuss strategies for managing community conflicts that arise over health education.

AIDS and Beyond

While sex education has long been a target of community criticism, conference participants agreed that recent efforts by schools to educate students about AIDS have prompted a new deluge of complaints.

Indeed, the emergence of AIDS over the past decade has fundamentally changed the way schools teach students about sex, health educators at the conference said. Currently, 34 state education departments require schools to teach students about AIDS, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Over the past year, school boards in several major urban districts, including New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, have voted to allow the distribution of condoms to students, infuriating some parents who see the schools as usurping their rights.

"Parents say, 'I fear you talking about condoms to my children because I fear it's going to cause them to experiment,''' said the conference's moderator, Loren Bensley Jr., a professor of health education and health science at Central Michigan University. "And that's when it becomes controversial.''

But while AIDS and sex education often attract the most criticism, almost every aspect of health education may come under fire. For example, even seemingly mundane topics have invoked the ire of groups in the rural community of East Sullivan, Me., who have contended that health classes on stress-management and decisionmaking promote "New Age'' or "Far Eastern'' religions, according to Sherry Blais, the district's health-education curriculum coordinator.

"They've mounted a kind of attack on health education in general,'' she said. "They say saying we're doing group therapy or mind control.''

Similarly, education officials in Michigan last year dropped a deep-breathing exercise for students from the statewide health curriculum when some parents linked it with occult practices. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991.)

Parents in South Carolina, Indiana, and Washington State have also attacked "critical thinking'' programs in their schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

Seeking Help

When a public outcry against a curriculum occurs, health educators often do not know how to handle it constructively, conference participants agreed.

A typical response, said Donna Rue, a health educator at the Warren County Public Health Nursing Agency in Washington, N.J., is the "'ostrich approach': Stick your head in the sand, ignore it, and it will go away.''

Schools embroiled in controversy also often fail to bring in individuals from outside the community who can provide an unbiased, knowledgeable perspective, Mr. Bensley said.

Depending on how a controversy is handled, the consequences for schools can vary greatly, said JoAnne Owens-Nauslar, the director of health and physical education for the Nebraska Department of Education. Parents may simply elect to have their child sit out classes containing material they find objectionable, or health-education programs may be revised or replaced with material favored by opposition groups.

And even if the curriculum is changed to mollify one group of critics, the controversy may still continue. Several years ago, the Duval County, Fla., schools adopted a sex-education program called "Teen-Aid'' in response to groups who demanded a curriculum that stresses abstinence.

Last May, six families and Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida filed suit in state circuit court in an attempt to bar the Duval district from using the program. The plaintiffs charged that the district's action violated state law calling for comprehensive sex education and that Teen-Aid embodies a religious point of view.

Mae Waters, the director of comprehensive health education for the Florida Department of Education, discussed with conference participants how the state and the district responded to the conflict. At the district's request, the state's education and health departments conducted a joint review of Teen-Aid. Although the review concluded that the curriculum contained misleading information and medical inaccuracies, the district decided to continue using the program. The parents' suit is still pending.

"We support local control,'' Ms. Waters said, "and if that's their decision, we support their decision to use that curriculum.''

In some situations, said Becky Smith, the association's executive director, educators respond to dissent by simply scrapping an entire program, "instead of just going in and doing a thorough analysis and getting the community to participate, so whatever was problematic with the program could be remediated and the rest of the program would remain solid.''

Involving the Community

Several workshops focused on helping participants learn how to recognize a potential conflict and diffuse it early. One key theme echoed throughout the conference was the importance of ensuring that a district's health-education program reflects the local community's values.

Jackie Sowers, a consultant specializing in health education and child-development issues, recommended that schools create a committee that includes a diverse group of community members to advise on decisions about health education.

To help schools minimize the negative outcomes of a controversy, Ms. Waters, of Florida, advised conference participants to develop a clear, specific message about the district's position on the issues in question, and educate school staff members about this message so that "everybody is singing from the same song sheet.''

Ms. Waters also recommended that school officials:

  • Have a written mission statement and clear agenda.
  • Educate the community about the district's position through the media.
  • Turn to professional networks and associations for support.
  • Get local health and education officials to voice their support publicly.
  • Be aware of legal issues at stake.

In the long run, every controversy may have its silver lining, Ms. Waters said.

"Controversy can create a positive atmosphere in the fact that you get folks working together to find a solution,'' she observed. "The best way is to make sure you have cooperation and collaboration flowing from all the people involved.''

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