The Montana Republican Party is using the threat of “graphic, explicit” sex education for Montana grade-schoolers to drum up support for its legislative candidates this fall.
But according to some, the party’s tactic is unfair.
The party put out a press release this week arguing that Helena’s controversial sex education policy could spread “to the rest of the state” if Republicans are not in the majority at the 2011 Legislature.
The release describes Helena’s proposed curriculum as “graphic and explicit” and faults the program for beginning in kindergarten.
Bowen Greenwood, the party’s executive director said Democrats have twice tried to pass laws that would create a statewide sex-education program similar to Helena’s and have been stopped only because Republicans rallied to blunt their efforts.
“The fact of the matter is, we do consider it a very realistic possibility that (another effort) could come back in the future,” he said, referring to House Bill 596, proposed by Rep. Theresa Henry, D-Missoula.
But according to Jessica Rhoades, a spokeswoman for the Office of Public Instruction, the state constitution forbids the Legislature from dictating the details of any kind of school curriculum statewide, leaving such choices to local school boards. She said it would be impossible for any Legislature to force statewide curriculum on local boards.
Rhoades said Henry’s bill did not mandate any specific kind of sex education; it only directed state education officials to provide additional resources to school districts for sex education if they request it.
“It was optional,” she said.
Henry disputed the assertion their bill directed any kind of “graphic, explicit” sex education. She said he hoped the bill, called the Healthy Teen Act, would have provided kids with the information they need to stay healthy. A growing number of teenagers are engaging in risky sexual behaviors other than traditional intercourse because they believe they can avoid disease that way and “save themselves for marriage.”
“I know situations where kids didn’t realize that the fornication their parents talked about as a sin is exactly what they’re doing,” said Henry, a nurse practitioner and nursing professor.
At issue is a proposed health education curriculum now pending before the Helena School Board. The 64-page document deals with a wide range of health related topics, from the importance of hand-washing and good posture to identifying healthy foods. A small portion of the curriculum dealt with human sexuality, although that portion has generated the most controversy.
The board has postponed a decision on the curriculum and is in the process of changing some of the language in the document.
Critics, including the Montana Republican Party, said the sex-education portion begins in kindergarten. They take particular issue with a section of the curriculum that teaches fifth-graders that sexual activity includes “vaginal, oral, or anal penetration.”
State Republican Chairman Will Deschamps of Missoula, called the curriculum “extremist indoctrination.”
But Bruce Messinger, superintendent of Helena Public Schools, said the proposed curriculum is hardly “extremist.”
He described the human sexuality portion as “abstinence-based” and noted that the first direct mention of sexual relations begins in fourth grade with a discussion on abstinence.
Currently, Helena Public Schools begins sex education in fifth grade.
“Abstinence is abstaining from all sexual activity,” he said. “We want students to understand that a more limited definition of intercourse is not the only way” to engage in sexual activity or spread sexually transmitted infections.
The human sexuality portion of the curriculum does not actually begin in kindergarten, according to the document. However, elsewhere the curriculum calls for teaching kindergarteners the anatomical names of various parts of the human body, including the penis, vagina and scrotum.
Messinger said it is unclear whether such anatomical vocabulary will begin in kindergarten. The committee that designed the curriculum wanted to make certain that students are familiar with the proper names of the human body before the sex education curriculum begins in fourth grade.
Plus, Messinger said, knowing the proper names of body parts helps educators and other adults work with young children who may have been victims of abuse.
Messinger said there has been a lot of misunderstanding about the curriculum draft, leading some parents to believe that the language included in the document is the same language teachers will impart on students. Messinger said he didn’t believe the curriculum was “graphic” or “explicit,” but he said document is only a “road map,” and not a textbook.
The actual instruction children will receive will be different from the short descriptions of curriculum goals listed in the document.
Before any new texts are introduced in the classroom, there will be a “parents night,” Messinger said, where parents can see exactly what their children will be learning.
“In our experience over the years, when people take the time to see” actual classroom instruction, most are happy with it, he said.
Reporter Jennifer McKee: 447-4069 or email@example.com