Thursday, August 25, 2005

Editorial: Teaching what they should

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Aug 25, 2005): The Scarborough Board of Education has made a good decision regarding its sex education curriculum, and we hope parents will be happy with it.

First, the schools will give out more information to parents and will again hold parental information sessions, canceled in the past because of low turnout.

And while some parents are concerned about demonstrations of condom use to eighth-graders, those families will be able to opt out of the class. The schools are being extra careful by making those class sessions “opt-in:” Parents will have to sign a form saying they know condom use will be discussed and demonstrated during the class, and saying they want their kids to learn that material.

The parents who have expressed concerns about the schools’ curriculum are right to want the teachers to focus on abstinence, encouraging students not to have sex until they are adults. And the teachers do just that.

But they do more – and the state guidelines are right to require it – teaching children how to stay safe if they decide to go against the advice of teachers, parents, other adults and this newspaper, and have sex.

The best advice we can give to kids is this: Wait to have sex. In addition to very real concerns about serious diseases or an unexpected baby, having sex at a young age can be emotionally traumatic, and it's hard for anybody to prepare a teenager for that.

We also applaud the schools’ efforts to teach students about the true challenges of parenthood, including through a program using computerized dolls to simulate the needs of an infant.

But kids don’t need to be taught about the possibilities of sex. As parents noted to the Board of Education last week, sex is all around us, in the movies, on TV, in posters and online. Some children – in any town – will always choose to ignore the advice of caring adults and take risks.

We teach young children to wear bicycle helmets in addition to the basic lesson of riding on the right side of the road. We do that not because we want them to ride unsafely, but because they deserve to know how to minimize the risks they take.

That is why the state Department of Education has ruled that an abstinence-only program developed by Heritage of Maine and supported by several Scarborough parents is not enough to meet the state’s educational standards. Kids need more information.

They need to know that one of the best ways to stay safe during sex is to use a condom. Condoms are not completely effective, it is true, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “except for abstinence, latex condoms are the most effective method for reducing the risk of infection” by a range of sexually transmitted diseases.

If a young person is going to give up the 100 percent effective option (abstinence), we should want them to be prepared with the next most effective way to minimize the risks they are about to take.

Schools recognize the need for good information – for frank discussions about sex, for repeated encouragement to abstain from sex, and for lessons on staying safe if kids take risks – and have met that need with classes like those taught in Scarborough.

With the opt-in classes, they have also respected parents’ rights to influence how, when and what their children learn about sex. It is important to note, though, that children here in Scarborough – and in Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and all across Maine – are talking about sex and thinking about sex to a degree their parents were not at the same age. And some of them are trying it.

Jeff Inglis, editor