PORTLAND – Twenty-five years ago, Chuck Morrison wasn’t allowed to display posters in the city’s high schools advising students to use condoms to prevent pregnancy.

Yesterday, while teaching one of his last sex education classes at Deering High School, Morrison explained how a teenage drinking party might land someone on the sex-offender registry for life.

Having sex with a person who has been drinking can be considered a crime under Maine law, Morrison told the 28 freshmen before him. Alcohol compromises a person’s ability to resist or consent. And it’s no better if both people are drinking.

”It’s still a crime,” Morrison said, answering one boy’s question. ”If one person feels they were taken advantage of, you run the risk of being charged with sexual assault.”

Morrison, one of three sex education teachers in Portland public schools, plans to retire in June. For the remainder of the school year, he and his teaching partner, Margaret Hoyt, will be working in the city’s three middle schools. Jill Shaw, who teaches sex education in Portland’s 10 elementary schools, also plans to retire this summer.

With their pending departures, the Family Living and Human Sexuality program is at a crossroads. Started in the late 1960s, the program has evolved to meet society’s changing needs and survived years of budget cuts, especially in the past decade.

Now the program is one of many under threat as Portland school officials brace for a $6 million reduction in state and federal funding in the coming year.

Superintendent Jim Morse said the program could be maintained as it is, reduced to one or two teachers, or transferred to the district’s health teachers, who are required to teach some sex education too. Morse’s 2010-11 budget is due March 3.

Teachers and others involved in the sex education program say they understand the district’s financial challenges, but they worry that the program will become watered down, inconsistent and less effective.

”I’m concerned about maintaining the integrity of what’s being taught,” said Lisa Belanger, a nurse practitioner who oversees Portland’s school-based health centers and sits on the sex education advisory committee.

”We are fortunate to have the program we have,” Belanger said. ”What gets put in its place needs to honor that integrity. This is critical information that’s important to the health and safety of our kids.”

Belanger and others say they hope the district continues to support a strong, clear sex education curriculum and ensures that whoever teaches the subject knows how to work with young people. ”Because it’s vital information that we’re providing to them,” said Hoyt, who has taught high school and middle school students with Morrison for 22 years.

The sex education program is provided as an alternative to several gym classes each year. Parents may exclude their children, but few of them do, Morrison said.

The teachers follow a strictly reviewed, age-appropriate curriculum that is explained to parents before classes start. For high school freshmen, topics include childbirth, teen parenting, sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, dating violence, healthy relationships, postponing sex and birth control.

Morrison and Hoyt also solicit anonymous questions at the end of each class. Students write them on small slips of paper and put them in a shoe box with a hole cut in the top. Morrison and Hoyt try to answer each one candidly and honestly, knowing that students count on them for accurate, trustworthy information.

Their questions can be straightforward — ”When does a pregnant woman start having morning sickness?” — or complicated — ”How do I know if I’m gay?”

Sometimes students use the box to ask for help dealing with abuse. Sometimes they don’t have a question at all. Like the note from one student who enjoyed Monday’s lesson about sexual assault.

”Today’s class was very interesting,” the student wrote. ”I think this has to be the most important class. It really has made me think. Mr. M., enjoy retirement.”

Morrison said he plans to keep that one.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]