The birds and the bees are well and good, but leaders of Montgomery County's public schools believe changing times call for a changing sex education curriculum. So a select group of eighth-graders is learning definitions for words such as "homosexual" and "sexual identity," and their high school counterparts are set to watch a condom demonstration video, talk about anti-gay prejudice, and read and discuss the personal stories of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
The new health curriculum was introduced this week at Argyle Middle School and will hit Julius West Middle School today. Barring court intervention, field-testing will continue in a total of six schools through March and will be implemented districtwide in the fall.
Few other counties -- in the state or even the nation -- have health classes that expressly deal with sexual orientation. While many in the community applaud the pioneering curriculum, others are unhappy about the five 45-minute lessons at the heart of a heated debate. A group that sued over the issue a couple of years back reunited to ask the Maryland State Board of Education to keep the curriculum out of classrooms. If the appeal fails, it says it will sue in federal court.
The group also sought a temporary stay to halt the pilot program, but state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick denied that request yesterday. The state board will likely make a final decision on the appeal within a couple months, said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the state education department.
Critics argue that the curriculum is incomplete, partly because it doesn't offer an alternative view of homosexuality as immoral.
"The school is presenting only one side of a controversial issue," said Peter Sprigg, a member of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, one of the groups behind the appeal. "We feel there is still viewpoint discrimination."
Michelle Turner, a mother of six, is vice president of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and a leader in the appeal process. She considers the condom video an improvement over a previous version, but she believes the related discussion should more fully address the health risks of anal sex.
Moreover, she is upset that sexual orientation is described as "innate," objects to the curriculum definition of "homophobia" and thinks that material about ex-gays should be included. That said, she would prefer the topic of sexual orientation be stripped from lessons altogether.
District officials, supportive parents and the local board -- which unanimously approved the curriculum in January -- counter that the disputed lessons largely focus on defining terms and teaching tolerance.
"This curriculum is very thoughtful, medically accurate and age-appropriate. ... It's about respecting differences," said parent and board member Patricia O'Neill of Bethesda. "This is a reality of the world we live in."
"We know we're going to be challenged," she said, "but the curriculum was written with pediatricians and attorneys making sure every 'i' was dotted and 't' crossed so we can stand up to future litigation."
The logjam dates back to 2004 -- and some say much earlier than that -- when a citizens advisory committee recommended that the county's health curriculum expand to include a planned discussion of sexual orientation and a condom demonstration video. But a curriculum developed later never made it to the classroom; Superintendent Jerry D. Weast scrapped the pilot program after a group of parents sued and a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order.
At that point, the process essentially started over. In conjunction with pediatricians, school district staff members devised a new curriculum, which a different advisory committee reviewed. All references to religion -- which had caused trouble previously -- were cut and the staff produced a more clinical condom video for 10th-graders. (Gone were an offending cucumber and an attractive young woman whom critics found objectionable.)
The new curriculum, which is available online, comes with a script that teachers -- who have received additional training -- must precisely follow. All students need written permission from parents to participate in the classes.
Turner says her organization has seen an increase in phone calls and e-mails in the wake of the latest round of clashes. But members of teachthefacts.org, a group of parents and others who support the curriculum, say the majority of the county is behind them.
"The community really is ready for it," said Jim Kennedy, who is president of teachthefacts.org and writes the group's daily blog. In the most recent school board elections, all the candidates hailing from the other side of the debate lost, he pointed out.
The Montgomery County Board of Education responded in writing to the appeal this week. Once members of the state board have finished collecting information they will decide -- in consultation with the attorney general's office -- if the department has jurisdiction over this type of appeal. A hearing could follow, Reinhard said.
In most states, including Maryland, the details of sexual education curricula are locally controlled, so it's difficult to determine how many districts explicitly discuss sexual orientation in the classroom. "We really have not done any surveys to see who's teaching what and where," said Brian Griffith, comprehensive health education specialist for the state Department of Education.
But Martha Kempner, a vice president at SEICUS, a nonprofit organization that promotes comprehensive sexuality education, says debates about this topic come up regularly around the country.
"Condom demonstrations and sexual orientation are the two most controversial issues we deal with," Kempner said.
Cases don't usually end up in federal court, however. The fact that this one briefly did, she said, may account for the extra attention it has received; the story has been batted around on talk radio and in the national media frequently since the dispute first arose. Some believe that because so many have been watching, the outcome of the conflict could have an impact beyond the walls of the county schools.
"I can assure you, if this is approved in Montgomery County, it's just a matter of time before it spreads throughout the state," Turner said.
Other school systems might be interested in using the county's curriculum because of a lack of quality materials on the subject, but "we're not trying to be a trend setter," said Brian Edwards, the county school system's spokesman. "What we're trying to do is provide students with important information they need to know to live in the world we live in today and to protect themselves."
The pilot program started Tuesday at Argyle Middle School with little fanfare aside from three protesters who stood outside the building with signs bearing messages such as "Don't label my child." Three students did not participate in the classes -- one opted out and two forgot permission slips, Edwards said.
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High Principal Sean Bulson said that when his school was chosen for the pilot program, he sent a message to a community e-mail list to let families know, but so far he has received little feedback. Just two parents responded, both to voice their support.
"I think this is a very responsible approach," he said. The curriculum "covers exactly what we claim to cover and doesn't really go outside that at all."
Laura Neuhauser, a 10th-grader at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High, is slated to take the contested classes next week.
"I think it's going to add new information and be a little controversial, but I think everyone will get used to it and it won't make that much of a difference," Laura said. "Our health teacher was mentioning it to us, and people seemed pretty supportive of it. They were like, 'It's a good thing.'"