Friday, June 22, 2007

Critics try again to block Montgomery’s sex-ed plan

Groups ask state school board to halt lesson plan before the fall

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A coalition of activist groups has filed another appeal with the Maryland State Board of Education, this time to stop Montgomery County’s sex-ed curriculum before it is implemented in all middle schools and high schools this fall.

In February, the groups — Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX) and Family Leader Network — asked the state board to stop the controversial curriculum before it was piloted. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick denied that request and allowed the pilot test to continue. The state board has yet to make a ruling in that case.

On Wednesday, the groups asked the state board to throw out the now-approved curriculum before the start of the school year. If the state board does not stop the curriculum, the critics said they would sue the county school system, claiming it released factually inaccurate information and did not put out material for public review before approving the curriculum.

The groups also claim the lesson plans violate students’ constitutional rights, including freedom of speech and the right to freely exercise religion.

The Montgomery school board adopted the revised lesson plans in a 6-1 vote during its June 12 meeting, and approved a last-minute addition from Superintendent Jerry D. Weast that allows teachers to answer questions about homosexuality.

‘‘Montgomery County is showing incredible arrogance by voting to adopt the revised health education curriculum before the State Board renders a decision on the legality of this very controversial curriculum,” John R. Garza, the groups’ attorney, said in a statement. ‘‘We don’t understand why Montgomery County is ignoring the process in this case, especially given Dr. Grasmick’s opinion that both sides have equally matched arguments.”

‘‘The state superintendent did make a decision based on the pilot, but the matter is pending before the state board,” said Judith S. Bresler, an attorney for the school system. ‘‘I’m not sure I see the point in [the appeal] ... given the fact that we’re going to have a decision before school starts.”

Bresler received a copy of the appeal on Wednesday and will respond only if the state board asks, she said.

Montgomery board member Patricia B. O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda, who has been involved in the sex-ed discussions for five years, said the board showed ‘‘courage in the face of bigots” in adopting the lesson plans.

‘‘It’s more of the same,” she said. ‘‘I’m not surprised. When we adopted the curriculum, I said, ‘Bring it on,’ because we will fight you tooth-and-nail. I am happy we did what we did and [am] confident it will stand up at the state board, in federal court, or wherever.”

The lessons, with a seven-minute video on proper condom use for 10th-graders and two 45-minute lessons on sexual orientation for eighth-graders, have come under fire before.

Revisions passed in 2004 included a discussion of homosexuality and a video on condom use. CRC and PFOX sued to stop the curriculum in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, saying it was unconstitutional.

In May 2005, a federal judge agreed, saying that teacher resource materials, not used in the classroom, were objectionable because they unfairly singled out specific religious denominations for their condemnation of homosexuality.

As part of settlement, the school board agreed to scrap the curriculum and restarted the process of revising the lessons. The critics were given seats on the advisory commission that recommended the curriculum that was approved in June.

‘‘They’re going to do everything they can do,” said James Kennedy, a member of the advisory panel and president of TeachTheFacts.org, a group that supports sex education in schools. ‘‘There’s no reason to think that the state board is going to override the local school board.”

David S. Fishback, a former chairman of the advisory panel, called the latest appeal a stunt.

‘‘This is nothing more than an attempt to keep the issue in the news,” he said. ‘‘There’s nothing new in these papers.”

Board Vice President Shirley Brandman said she saw the new effort to stop the lessons coming.

‘‘I still stand behind the curriculum,” said Brandman (At-large) of Bethesda. ‘‘My further hope is that nothing will derail it at this point. This doesn’t shake my confidence as to the appropriateness of the curriculum.”