Features

Gum-gnats and condom-camels

Sex Education | Maryland school district has an inconsistent definition of "health risks"

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

The recent sex-ed fracas in a Maryland school district started with a hunk of pink Bubblicious. But to put the outrage in context, you really need condoms and a cucumber.

In December and January, a Rockville Pregnancy Center abstinence-education presenter invited students in several Montgomery County high schools to play the "gum game." It goes like this:

The presenter asks the students, "Would anyone like to come up here and chew a piece of bubble gum?" There is always at least one taker. But as soon as the student ambles forward, pops the gum in his mouth, and gets it good and sloppy, the presenter asks if anyone else would like to come up and chew gum-the same gum.

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"Gross!" the girls typically cry.

But maybe not as gross as it sounds: According to Maryland health officials, sharing gum isn't any riskier than sharing a drinking glass. RPC presenters had been using the gum game, with school district approval, since 1998. And, based on the brief description in RPC's lesson plan-"Gum game. Discuss results"-school district officials reauthorized the gum game in 2006.

Still, after 15 students at Poolesville High School in January chewed the same hunk of gum, a parent complained to the district. News coverage followed, and the district summarily banned RPC from presenting in county schools. A Washington Post editorial declared the game "disgusting."

And that's the whole point, said RPC executive director Gail Tierney: "The kids who come up [and share gum] aren't disgusted. We want them to be disgusted. We want them to see how peer pressure will make normal kids do something they wouldn't ordinarily do." The gum game, she added, is designed to confront kids with a minor health decision before they find themselves confronted with a major one-like premarital sex.

RPC speakers were the only ones promoting an abstinence-only message in Montgomery County schools. Why didn't the district simply ask the group to knock off the gum game instead of banning its speakers entirely?

"Because it showed a gross lack of judgment that they were conducting this exercise in the classroom," said district spokesman Brian Edwards. "Adults should not be encouraging students to engage in unsanitary practices, whatever point they're trying to make."

That's where the cucumber comes in. The gum-sharing incident isn't the first time Montgomery County's sex-ed curriculum has come under scrutiny. In 2005, a conservative coalition sued the district over a pilot curriculum that portrayed homosexuality as a normal sexual variation, labeled as bigots certain Christian groups that oppose the normalization of homosexuality, and included a video that demonstrated proper condom-application using a cucumber as a penis.

Also, the pilot program asserted that homosexuals are no more at risk for contracting AIDS than heterosexuals-in contradiction to statements by the Food and Drug Administration, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and the National Institutes of Health. In 2005 a judge ruled that plaintiffs would likely win on establishment-clause and viewpoint-discrimination grounds, so the school district agreed to settle out of court.

It formed a new committee that included representatives from several liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Ruth Jacobs, an infectious disease physician, and Peter Sprigg, vice president for public policy at Family Research Council and a Montgomery County resident, represented conservatives.

Throughout 2006, the committee hammered out a new curriculum. When disagreement arose, the school district had the final word. Again, the issue of health risks came up: The new program materials discussed condom use in the context of oral, anal, and vaginal sex, but cited condom-safety stats that relate only to vaginal sex.

Sprigg and Jacobs objected to this as medically inaccurate, pointing out NIH and FDA statements on anal intercourse, including the high risk of internal tearing and bleeding, and direct entry into the bloodstream of pathogens and intestinal waste. Jacobs circulated a petition that more than 270 physicians signed, urging the district to include that information in the curriculum.

But the same school district that kicked out RPC for the low-risk gum game refused. And the new curriculum, now set for field testing, lets vaginal-use statistics stand as the only scientific statement on the impact of condoms on the safety of all intercourse types.

Sprigg, for one, finds the contrast ironic. "Everyone's up in arms about the risks of sharing a piece of gum," he said, "but they refuse to tell kids about the risks of anal sex"-a sexual behavior that could literally kill them.

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