Education: Sex and Schools

AIDS and the Surgeon General add a new urgency to an old debate

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The videotape is earnestly intent on deflecting criticism of homosexuals for spreading AIDS. In the tape's one emotional scene, the brother of an AIDS victim says, "If I ever hear anyone talking about how gays are to blame for AIDS . . . I swear to God, I'm gonna punch 'em in the head!" New York City is still debating whether to accept the tape. Board of Education President Robert Wagner Jr. has criticized it for not clearly opposing adolescent sex and drug use, but he has not directly objected to its gingerliness about homosexuality and anal sex.

Wagner and Schools Chancellor Nathan Quinones must deal with a minefield of conflicting views. The city's sex-education curriculum is described as "value neutral" but, like many other school systems' courses, is actually based on a generalized secular ethic of caring and respect for others. Parents dissatisfied with the version of the city curriculum served up in their district can pull their children out of particular classes by informing the principal. The program is sometimes popular, as it is at P.S. 42, but the effort to accommodate everyone is unacceptable to many. Last month the board of education mandated sex education for the remaining eleven school districts without it. Last week 250 protesters showed up at city hall to object.

Mary Cummins, head of School Board 24 in Queens, threatens to fight the imposed course plans in court. She complains that chastity is not taught as a value and homosexuality is depicted as an "acceptable alternative life- style." Her board, she said, supports the concept of sex education but not a curriculum that "violates social values and moral principles without consideration of our views and values." Deriding the idea of value-free instruction, Cummins says, "I defy anyone to teach it, including myself, without getting his own moral values across. I know, if I were teaching it, I'd stress morality."

Education Secretary William Bennett supports that kind of concern. His fear, he told a New York City audience last month, is that instead of a clear ethic of right and wrong, sex-ed students are frequently exposed to a hodgepodge of "feel-good philosophy." Bennett accepts sex education "provided that people do not try to make it value free." He would require instruction to include a message on abstinence. "Such courses should take place only if the community wants them and the parents are involved and know what is going to be taught."

One group has confronted value-free teaching by devising and marketing a model curriculum that states traditional conservative values throughout. Teen- Aid Inc., with headquarters in Spokane and 25 affiliates in the U.S. and Canada, urges youngsters to "resist the tide" of a sex-saturated culture. The program tries to sharpen the "refusal skills" of students and sends summaries of lessons home to parents. Students are told to be careful about what clothes they wear on dates, and not to drink or take drugs while on a date.

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