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Connections: Defying Common Sense

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The challenge of moving our public education system from the 19th century to the 21st is truly daunting. It cannot be done without the support of the public, and especially parents--many of whom are alienated from public schools when educational administrators and state bureaucrats make decisions that appear to defy common sense.

That was the case in last month's cover story, "Rebel Mom,'' about a Pennsylvania mother and her followers who were able to derail the state's overly elaborate outcome-based education plan because the officials who designed it were not able to explain or defend it effectively. And it was also evident in "Soul Searching,'' our September story on school prayer, which depicted administrators overreacting to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision by banning from schools anything even tinged with religion. It is also the case in this month's cover story, "Going Too Far.''

Few topics illustrate more dramatically a central dilemma of public schools today than sex education. The responsibility for guiding sexual development in children clearly lies with parents. But many children come from broken homes or nontraditional families where guidance is not provided. Confronted with rampant promiscuity, staggering rates of teenage pregnancy, and the alarming increase of AIDS among the young, schools once again feel compelled to substitute for parents.

Thousands of districts across the country have adopted comprehensive K-12 sex education curricula in an effort, as one district plan puts it, "to provide students with the knowledge and skills with which to make responsible decisions about their social relationships and sexual activity.''

Educators deserve high marks for their willingness to tackle the formidable task abandoned by so many parents. But in doing so, they venture into swampy and dangerous terrain. And they demonstrate anew that public bureaucracies are rarely suited to such sensitive and difficult tasks as shaping personal morality.

Contributing writer David Ruenzel did not set out to write this month's cover story when he attended a meeting of his school board in Peoria, Ill. But the heated discussion over a proposed comprehensive K-12 sex education curriculum piqued his curiosity. As he studied the proposal, talked with officials and parents, and looked more broadly at sex education programs across the country, his curiosity turned to consternation.

Ruenzel found that educators, believing as they do in the power of knowledge, have crafted sex education programs that expose primary school pupils to information that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. In teaching young people about sexual intercourse, masturbation, and homosexuality, schools seem to have as a major goal to reassure students that their sexuality is normal, however it may manifest itself. The Peoria proposal, which was modeled after a program developed by the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, includes "outercourse'': "The student will understand that some couples may engage in mutual masturbation as a way to express sexual feelings while avoiding or decreasing the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.''

It is hard even to imagine a group of intelligent adults sitting around a table coming up with "outercourse'' as part of a public school sex education curriculum. By offering it as a kind of sexual-relief valve, Ruenzel writes, schools are "entering with their students into a new discourse--a discourse of sex as pleasure.'' Arguably, such a strategy would seem counterproductive for public schools that generally say they encourage abstinence. One cannot help but wonder whether those who crafted it consulted with any parents--or even considered that many parents might react negatively.

One mother who was not consulted is organizing opposition to the Peoria program because she believes that knowledge and information are not enough. "We've got to be more personal in our approach,'' she says. "It's not just a matter of condoms, statistics. There's a whole emotional aspect we have to deal with.... We need to talk to students as human beings.''

Ruenzel agrees: "How one behaves or misbehaves sexually-- empathetically or exploitatively, cautiously or impulsively-- depends, as in all human activities, less on acquired knowledge than on character, something slowly acquired over years of education, both in and out of school.'' That's something educators ought to know.--Ronald A. Wolk

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