Sex education ought to emphasize basic ethical values of community

Sunday, April 27, 1997

“Our school district is working on a new health curriculum
for the high school. We know that this can be a controversial
issue, but we are not certain which members of the parent, religious,
and school communities to involve. Is there a role for local hospital
and health department representatives?”

Peg Hill, San Bernardino, Calif.

You're wise to anticipate that the health curriculum, because
it includes discussions about family and human sexuality, may
become a focus for debate in your community.

Yes, there is certainly a role for health professionals and other
experts who have the latest scientific information about health
issues. But health education, particularly in the area of human
sexuality, should not be limited to a factual treatment. Health
education should be character-based. This means that core
ethical values, such as respect, self-control, caring and responsibility,
should be taught as part of any comprehensive health curriculum.

According to the Character Education Partnership, a nonpartisan
coalition that promotes character education, character-based health
education “should be directive, guiding students — through
thoughtful curricula, medical evidence, and ethical reasoning —
toward right decisions about sex that are in their own best interests
and in the best interests of society.”

There is widespread agreement that health education should teach
unmarried teenagers that the right decision about sex is to abstain.
A character-based approach goes beyond the presentation of facts
about sexuality to emphasize the virtues of self-control, responsibility
and courage that are required for the development of good character
and sexual maturity.

Local communities will differ about the school's role in the
area of sex education. There will also be differences of opinion
about what information to present about birth control and methods
other than abstinence. But in most communities there will be strong
agreement that whatever information is included, it should not
be presented in a way that undermines the school's moral message
about abstinence and character.

In general, the best way to minimize controversy and conflict
over a new health curriculum is to make sure that all of the community's
key segments are fully represented in its development and that
all citizens have ample opportunity to review the material before
its final adoption.

Full representation means finding parents with different perspectives
to serve on the development committee. Ask civic and religious
leaders to suggest names of potential committee members. Include
people from your local PTA or PTO, but also reach out to parents
who haven't been vocal or visible in the schools.

A core of teachers experienced in teaching health education on
the grade levels involved should be part of the committee. So
should school administrators, who must guide implementation of
the curriculum (and deal with community concerns). It's also advisable
to include at least one member of the school board during this
development phase.

Waiting until the end of the process to involve board members
can be a disaster. A northern California school board recently
rejected its own committee's recommendations for a sex-education
curriculum. This was after the committee had completed a year
of work and much discussion with the wider community. Only then
did committee members discover that the school board-which had
responsibility for the final decision-wanted to take a completely
different approach. The time to address school board concerns
is during the curriculum-development process, not after.

A final word of advice: Be sure your school district has a policy
allowing parents to request that their child be excused from portions
of the health-education curriculum offensive to their religious

If the process is open and fair and parents are fully included,
then the health-education curriculum can be an excellent opportunity
for building trust and understanding between public school educators
and the community.

To obtain a copy of “Character-Based Sex Education in Public
Schools,” published by the Character Education Partnership,
call (800) 988-8081.