Sex-education plan demands consensus

Sunday, December 22, 1996

A teacher recently asked me the following question: “If
I can teach in school that stealing is wrong (and stealing is
considered by many to be a moral issue), why can't I teach that
sexual abstinence before marriage is right, since this to me is
also a moral issue?” How would you respond to that question?

Eric Holmes,
Logan, Utah

Moral values widely shared in the community, including abstinence,
may be taught by public school teachers. It is true that the
First Amendment prohibits teachers in public schools from invoking
religious authority when teaching good character. But this does
not mean that the teacher must be neutral about moral values.
Growing numbers of school districts have comprehensive character
education programs that model and teach core moral values and
civic virtues, such as honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility.

Teaching abstinence is permissible, but getting agreement on
how to teach it is often difficult. Unlike character education
programs that focus on consensus moral values, sex education is
done in many different ways, representing a variety of moral perspectives.

Not long ago, Rocklin, Calif., like many other communities, was
torn apart over the question of how to teach abstinence. On one
side, there was what might be called the “abstinence, but”
approach: teach abstinence, but give information about contraception
and condoms for health and safety reasons. On the other side
were the “abstinence with no buts” people: teach abstinence
without going on to discuss what you do if you decide to be sexually
active. The fight in Rocklin led to angry school board meetings
and a bitterly divided community.

Other school districts have resolved their differences by bringing
all sides together to find common ground before there is a crisis.
In Maryville, Tenn., for example, the school district involved
parents and teachers in a discussion of how to teach and encourage
abstinence. The program that Maryville eventually adopted was
developed locally and reflects the consensus in that community
on teaching abstinence and on what information to give about other
methods (and when to give it) without undermining or contradicting
the school's moral message about abstinence and character. Today,
thanks to a careful process and thoughtful leadership, the citizens
of Maryville across the political and religious spectrum support
the sex-education program in their schools.

If your school district decides to implement a sex education-program
(or is required to do so by state law), make sure that parents
and other citizens, including religious leaders, are fully involved
in deciding how it is going to be done.

The most important stakeholders in the discussion are parents.
Schools must recognize that parents have the primary responsibility
for the upbringing of their children, including educational responsibility.
Parents, after all, are the first and most important moral educators
of their children. Once a sex-education program is agreed to,
there may be parents who object on religious grounds to their
children's participation. School districts would be well-advised
to have a policy that allows children of these parents to be excused
from the sex-education program.

However local communities and schools answer the “how to”
question, it is vitally important that schools focus on educating
for character. In the view of the Character Education Partnership,
a broad-based, nonpartisan organization, sex education programs
“must be based on a clear understanding of the moral issues
at stake in sexual activity … Sex education must help young
people apply core ethical values such as respect, responsibility,
and self-control to the sexual domain.”

Approached in this way, the discussion about sex education in
the public schools becomes an opportunity for schools to reaffirm
core moral values widely held in the community by people of many