Education: Sex and Schools

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

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In Omaha, where a beleaguered committee is now cautiously preparing the city's first sex-ed program, there is still controversy about whether to teach the subject at all. In such an atmosphere, school officials tend to talk a lot about the family and the bracing wonders of abstinence. School Superintendent Norbert Schuerman has called for "educational experiences that do not violate the social and moral standards of the total community." He said schools need the help of parents and suggested that any sex-ed program underline the message "It's O.K. to Say No." In a spasm of candor, School Board Member Bill Pfeffer admitted that a lot of sidestepping and shuffling is going on. "Everyone is afraid that the Catholic Church and the other groups are going to get very angry." One board member, John Haller, 77, said he will keep opposing any program because "the kids are getting too inquisitive; we're arousing their curiosity." The difficulty with sex, contended the Rev. Bob Thone of the Omaha Gospel Tabernacle, is that "the more you talk about it, the more it excites the desire to experiment."

New Jersey appears to have managed the task of eroding the conservative beachhead. There are still some angry dissenters who have lawsuits and other protests pending. But the state board of education defused much opposition and won the support of the state's five Roman Catholic dioceses by conducting a three-year public debate before starting sex-education programs in the schools in 1983. Grateful to be asked for their input, the bishops endorsed the state's sex-education plans, but "with reservations," mostly about instruction on abortion and contraception.

One of the state's model programs, designed for the Irvington school system, which is 92% black and Hispanic, runs from kindergarten through twelfth grade, starting with simple instruction on bodily functions and child abuse, then moving on during high school years to instruction in family planning. Fourth-Grade Teacher Linda Lichtenberger conducts her sex-ed classes like rap sessions, and designs homework assignments that encourage students to discuss what they are learning with their parents.

The course does not slip by controversial areas. Lichtenberger shows her nine- and ten-year-olds a chart on contraceptive methods and their efficiency rates. "We really have to arm children with something," she says. "They don't have to be abused or taken advantage of. We want them to protect themselves so they don't become one of the wounded adults that take it out on the next generation." Latasha Gadsden remembers taking the course last year and learning about "VD, how babies are born and how babies form in the uterus." Sometimes "the boys all laughed," she adds. But Latasha thinks "sex education makes people more mature because it's not really funny, it's your own body."

In Rockford, Ill., Teacher Thomas Lundgren's seventh-grade "Family Life and Health" course separates the sexes for two or three days each year because girls do not want to discuss sanitary protection in front of boys, and boys are just as embarrassed to talk about wet dreams in a mixed class. When students talk about the emergence of heterosexuality and homosexuality, Lundgren says, "we tell them we're just giving them an educated guess, and use an analogy with right- and left-handedness, that sexual orientation is something that is established very early in life."

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