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Grassroots Warriors Waging Battle Over Sex-Ed. Curriculum

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Hemet, Calif.

Outside the white stucco house in this desert town cradled against the green San Jacinto Mountains, it was a mild afternoon. But inside the comfortable, spacious home, the conversation was heating up.

Around a kitchen table cluttered with soda bottles, crackers, and cheese, a dozen or so parents were planning strategy for an upcoming school board meeting. They were battling the board's decision to adopt elements of an "abstinence only" sex-education curriculum, which these parents believe threatens their children's health.

"These courses teach kids that you can get aids through French kissing," said Nan Creighton, a local parent. "We all know that's simply not true."

This opposition, shared by near-ly 100 Hemet parents and teachers, has made the quiet town halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs home to one of the fiercest sex-education controversies in the country.

Over 200 similar battles are percolating in school systems from California to Pennsylvania, according to the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., a New York City-based sex-education research and advocacy group.

In many of them, parents are reacting to the advocacy of such curricula by conservative Christian candidates who have made substantial gains in school board elections in recent years.

Often, parents' groups have succeeded in removing what they see as objectionable curricula without having to go to court.

Teaching About Sex

Last month, the Hemet parents even got help from Superman, or at least an actor who played him in the movies. Christopher Reeve led a celebrity caravan from Hollywood to protest the board's decision. The protesters claimed the new curriculum omits critical information for students who are sexually active.

But these parents know that the Man of Steel alone cannot get them out of this predicament.

"We'd love to have Superman save the metropolis," said Maureen Brian, who is spearheading the effort. "But this needs to be real grassroots," said Ms. Brian, an accountant who has a 15-year-old son in the public schools.

Last month, the Hemet board dealt the opposition parents another setback by adopting in its entirety the controversial curriculum called "Sex Respect."

The three-volume guide, published by Respect Inc. of Bradley, Ill., teaches that sexual abstinence until marriage is the only acceptable form of birth control. It contends that contraceptives, particularly condoms, are ineffective in preventing pregnancy.

More than 2,000 school districts subscribe to the Sex Respect curriculum package, which sells for a basic price of $44.40 each.

Abstinence Is 'Critical'

Kent Mast, the president of Respect Inc., said his critics are just scared.

"Comprehensive" sex-education lessons promote premarital sex by teaching about condoms, which are less than 100 percent effective, Mr. Mast said.

Lessons about postponing sexual involvement are critical, he argued, because "many teens are having sex only for the reason that no one has told them they don't have to." Many teachers are "relieved" to have an alternative, he added.

Bonnie Park, a Hemet school board member and a staunch advocate of Sex Respect, said the lessons "teach kids how to date and that they don't have to be sexually active." In an interview before the board vote, she said that "to force-feed students talk of contraception" only encourages their interest in sex.

Little is known about the effectiveness of programs like Sex Respect. Several studies, however, indicate that students do not appear to change their sexual behavior unless a sex-education program provides specific information on how to resist sexual pressures and how to prevent pregnancy and disease.

Grassroots Campaigns

The Hemet parents who gathered for the strategy session advocate a more comprehensive sex-education program. They favor teaching the values of abstinence, but also giving students detailed information about contraception and aids transmission.

"We don't want our school curriculum to push an ideological agenda," said Ms. Brian. "We have to stand up and stop it."

The activists here and around the country who are protesting Sex Respect and similar curricula defy easy labels. They are Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Most are women who work outside the home, but many are also full-time mothers, said Debra W. Haffner, the executive director of siecus.

Some have never set foot on a picket line. But they all see this as a personal mission.

"I am not a club kind of person," said Karen Dunphy, an artist and the mother of a 13-year-old daughter in Mariemont, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. The district adopted Sex Respect six years ago, and she and a network of parents and friends have been trying to get it removed ever since.

"The book is so incredibly backward--it's full of misinformation," Ms. Dunphy contended.

The guide's admonitions to "'Pet Your Dog! Not Your Date!" and "Do the Right Thing! Wait for the Ring!" ignore the fact, she said, that 56 percent of girls and 73 percent of boys have had sex before their 18th birthdays.

Young people typically start having sex eight years before marriage, according to a report earlier this year by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group based in New York City.

"They don't teach anything about the risks" in these classes, added Ms. Dunphy. "They just teach scare tactics."

Young people are one of the fastest-growing populations at risk for h.i.v., the virus that causes aids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, after a 15-year decline, the number of teenagers having children is again on the rise, according to a 1994 Gutt-macher Institute report.

Susan Jordan, a Hemet parent, charges that the authors of the curricula often simplify the difficult choices pregnant girls face.

Leafing through the student workbook, Ms. Jordan pauses at a sentence that reads: "While adoption is hard for a while ... it benefits the unwed mother."

"I am a mother who gave her child up for adoption, and every day I grieve," Ms. Jordan said. "The authors fail to mention that these decisions are painful."

Sophisticated Tactics

Ms. Jordan and parents like her have become creative about marketing their message to teach comprehensive sex education.

They often employ tactics that have been mastered by their opponents: They meet with editorial boards of local newspapers, write opinion pieces, and form coalitions with churches, health agencies, and local businesses.

Stan Kocos, cq jp the director of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, helped parents there enlist the aid of two University of Wisconsin professors in a similar battle a few years ago. The professors submitted a critique of a curriculum called "Teen Aid" to a local school board, which discontinued its use as a result.

If such tactics fail, some parents keep fighting--by running for school board.

Cathy B. Rudibaugh, a lawyer and parent who is running for the Hemet school board, said she wants teachers to educate her daughter about contraceptives because she cannot talk to her teenager about sex.

"If I even mention, say, the menstrual cycle, she goes into her room and screams," Ms. Rudibaugh said.

But, for many parents, becoming an activist often has a price.

"I've been called a lesbian lover, a heathen, a homosexual advocate. And I'm a white, middle-aged American mother," said Mary Ellen Hoffman of Shreveport, La., who fought in court to remove Sex Respect and won.

Going to Court

When parents and school board officials reach an impasse, debates over the curricula have sometimes become courtroom confrontations.

Parents in the Caddo Parish, La., and Jacksonville, Fla., districts have sued their school systems under state laws that bar districts from using curricula that are medically inaccurate or religiously based. (See Education Week, Jan. 27, 1993.)

The parents from Caddo Parrish won their lawsuit last year. The Jacksonville suit is pending.

Unless school board elections in Hemet next month produce a majority willing to change how sex is taught, Ms. Brian and her colleagues may be next.

"Nobody wants to sue their school district," said Ms. Brian. She said she dreads the legal costs that would take money away from schools.

"But when you've tried everything," she said, "sometimes your only recourse is to go to court."

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