Parents slam sex ed material

Schools’ definition of abstinence undergoes review

Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005

The county school system is re-thinking its definition of sexual abstinence after complaints from two parents that their children were receiving incorrect and even risky information in sex ed classes.

Karen Sees and Cindy Richards said the ‘‘contraception comparison chart” used in eighth-grade health class at Herbert Hoover Middle School describes three types of abstinence: No intercourse, withdrawal (ejaculation outside of the body) and rhythm (no intercourse during ovulation).

‘‘Since when did the term abstinence change to include the two most ineffective forms of birth control possible?” said Cindy Richards of Potomac. ‘‘Here we have been teaching our kids that abstinence means not having sex, period. What kind of message is this [chart] sending?”

Sees, also of Potomac, first became aware of the chart while helping her son study for health class in late October. She said she immediately e-mailed her son’s health education teacher about her concerns.

‘‘I’m all for teaching sex education, but I want it to be accurate information,” she said. ‘‘I was told by my son’s health teacher that withdrawal and rhythm are considered abstinence because [sexual partners] are refraining from what they want to do.”

Both Planned Parenthood of Maryland and the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington agreed with the parents that the definition was faulty.

‘‘Abstinence is when you’re not having sex, as simple as that,” said Wendy Royalty of Planned Parenthood.

And Susan Gibbs, archdiocese spokeswoman, also suggested another correction for the chart.

‘‘The use of the word ‘rhythm’ went out about 40 years ago when it was replaced with the term natural family planning,” she said.

The MCPS chart dates back to the early 1990s, said Barbara Pearlman, MCPS coordinator for health education.

It lists a dozen methods of contraception with columns for how the method works, its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy, side effects, if it protects against sexually transmitted diseases and how it is obtained.

Each method falls under one of four categories: permanent (vasectomy), mechanical (condoms), chemical (birth control pills) or abstinence.

Earlier this month, Richards and Sees began calling and e-mailing various school officials about their concerns.

Sees asked that more emphasis be placed on teaching students the pregnancy risk involved in withdrawal.

‘‘I was told [by MCPS staff] that it’s too complicated to explain to kids that you could get pregnant [from withdrawal]. I said, ‘Too complicated? It’s one sentence, easily understood,’” Sees said.

Far more complicated was determining who within MCPS could authorize the change, she said.

‘‘The [Hoover school staff] told me only the county could make that decision. Then the county [MCPS officials] told me they set the curriculum but have no control over how the schools implement it,” Sees said.

But changes to the chart are in the works, said Brian Edwards, MCPS spokesman.

‘‘It’s a clarification we think is important to make,” he said. ‘‘In fact, many health teachers have already crossed out the word [abstinence] on the chart.”

A memo directing health teachers to revise the chart is now working its way through MCPS channels. Withdrawal and rhythm will now be listed under a new category of ‘‘no method.”

This change comes as the school system is in the process of revising its sex education curriculum. In May, a federal judge blocked revisions to the curriculum that included a controversial video demonstrating condom use and a discussion of homosexuality after two groups sued. Last month, the school board appointed a new advisory committee to review curriculum being developed by county health teachers, administrators and outside consultants.

The definition of abstinence may well be in the eye of the policy maker, judging from the Web site of Office of Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It defines ‘‘continuous abstinence” as not having vaginal, anal or oral sexual intercourse at any time. But then there’s ‘‘periodic abstinence” or ‘‘fertility awareness methods,” where sex is either avoided on days when a woman is fertile or a ‘‘barrier,” such as a condom, is used to help prevent pregnancy.