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Students join debate over sex education Teen leaders say class offered in ninth grade is too little, too early; 'Can't remember anything'; School system focus on abstinence limits learning, critics say


In a conservative county where sex education is one of the most debated topics, one voice has been absent: that of the student.

Until now. It has dawned on student government leaders in Carroll County to speak up.

The preceding silence led school board member Carolyn L. Scott this month to ask the health supervisor: "Do the children take the health curriculum as seriously as we do?"

Apparently, they want to. But juniors and seniors say ninth grade was the last time they had sex education -- just one unit in their health class -- and it had little impact.

"I can't remember anything about it," said Brooke McDonald, a Westminster High School junior and member of the Carroll County Student Government Association.

She is on a committee, chaired by Francis Scott Key senior Na'tosha Brooks, that reported to the school board this month the consensus of the SGA: Students need more information about preventing pregnancy and disease, it shouldn't be limited to abstinence and it shouldn't stop in ninth grade.

School board members asked for a meeting with the committee to talk more about why board members stress abstinence and to receive more input from students.

Like Brooke, Na'tosha can't remember much about her sex education unit in ninth grade.

"I guess at the time, I didn't take it as seriously, or I didn't think I had to worry about it because I wasn't going to do anything wrong," Na'tosha said.

But lots of teens are having sex, the students said, and they need to keep hearing about the risks and all of the ways to prevent them, not just abstinence.

The elected student leaders from Carroll high schools convened the committee this fall at the suggestion of Linnea Pagulayan, a Westminster senior who is the student representative to the school board. Linnea was surprised at her first meeting in June to find that students weren't part of the review process for new sex education materials.

Their main complaint: The school board's emphasis on abstinence is excluding information for students who already are sexually active.

"Our problem with that is there are a lot of students in high school who are already having sex. They tune out when the teachers start talking about abstinence, and they're the ones who really need help," Brooke said. "We understand that they want to teach morals, but we want all the students to know everything they can and be well-informed, so they can make their own choices."

Brooke also would like to see annual assemblies on preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, so that ninth grade is not the last time students get this information.

"We have a whole drug symposium, but we never have any sex education except for that one class," Brooke said.

Emphasizing abstinence and then teaching about condoms would seem hypocritical, said William Piercy, supervisor of health for the county schools.

Because schools cannot and should not be everything to students, he said, the main focus is on teaching students that they are too young to take that step into sexual activity.

"It comes down to whether to be sexually active or not," Piercy said.

"I'm glad to be supported on the abstinence issue," said Dana Falls, a Westminster High School health teacher. "The board is not afraid to set clear guidelines.

"It's like wearing a seat belt with a drunk driver," Falls said of condoms and other prevention methods. "If I can teach you not to get into the car in the first place, then I'm keeping you completely safe."

Piercy said the schools provide toll-free numbers for the health department and a rape hot line. School nurses can give information to students who ask, he said.

But Na'tosha doubted many students would ask.

"They avoid discussing anything, or they're in denial," Na'tosha said. "They know AIDS [acquired immune deficiency syndrome] is out there, but they don't know that there are other diseases."

Linnea got the idea for the committee after her first school board meeting in June. June is always the first meeting for the new student member. It's also the time when the board votes on sex education materials. That means the student representative can be unprepared for the discussion.

Linnea had listened with interest as board members debated and eventually voted down 3-1 a videotape about three teen-age mothers -- a documentary that showed the bleakness of having a baby too soon.

Board member Ann M. Ballard was the only one to defend the video, which she said was powerful and well-done.

"The video showed her standing at the fence, and her friends were playing tennis while she was standing there with the baby on her hip, rocking him and putting in the pacifier," Ballard said. "If that doesn't teach abstinence "

But the young mothers lamented not using birth control, rather than becoming sexually active, board members complained.

In an interview later, Linnea said she refrained from joining the discussion because she hadn't seen the video. Student representatives do not have voting power on the board.

"They were second-guessing what the students would get out of it," Linnea said.

Carroll has one of the most conservative approaches to sex education in Maryland. State law requires that parents be notified of "family life" classes and allows them to exclude their children.

But in Carroll, parents must request that their children participate.

Nearly all students take the classes, but they cannot without the permission slip signed by a parent or guardian.

In 1988, the board approved a policy to emphasize abstinence.

But the policy, in accordance with state law, also acknowledges an obligation to provide information on preventing pregnancy and disease.

The policy reads: "While the instruction must be informative for youngsters who choose to be sexually active, it is the position of the Board of Education of Carroll County that abstinence from premarital sex shall be presented to students as the most appropriate choice."

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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