The Scarborough schools will work harder to tell parents exactly what is involved in the district’s sex education classes following a meeting on Thursday in which most attendees supported the schools’ curriculum.

The district has agreed to notify parents about the sex education classes in more detail. It also will begin holding parental information nights about the class. The classes were held in the past, but were sparsely attended and the district stopped holding them a couple years ago.

This year, parents have to sign a form allowing their children to participate in controversial lessons about condom use. Children will not need special permission to attend the classes in which teachers counsel students to abstain from sex.

The meeting began with a presentation by middle and high school staff on the district’s health program, which includes sex education classes.

The district’s health class is a one-semester program taught in the sixth, eighth and tenth grades. It lasts a total of 30 hours. While various forms of contraception are taught in the eighth-grade program, the district contends the class is abstinence-based.

“I am absolutely certain the premise of the program is eighth graders are too young to be sexually active,” said Superintendent Bill Michaud.

Opponents feel the eighth grade is too early to hold the lessons. They also believe the district is sending mixed signals by discussing both abstinence and contraceptives.

However, district educators stressed that abstinence is taught throughout the program and students are told it is the only way to remain safe from sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancy.

“Condoms are not emphasized, nor are they promoted,” said Director of Curriculum and Assessment Monique Culbertson. “Far more instruction time is spent on the advantages of abstinence than on contraceptives.”

Students are not allowed to play with a condom, but one is handed around the class. The school nurses do open a condom and demonstrate its use by placing it on a contraceptive foam can. The state requires lessons on contraceptives, but does not require the demonstration.

There also are lessons on a number of prescription contraceptives. The final two periods of the class focus on abstinence.

The sex education class has been taught for 11 years and most of the lessons and concepts come from the Maine Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control, Culbertson said. Last spring just three out of 122 students did not attend the class.

Following the presentation, board members felt the district’s programs were benefiting students while fulfilling state requirements.

“I feel this is a good program and I’d hate to see anything change on it,” said board member Walter Hansen.

Most of the people who spoke during the meeting agreed, saying that children are exposed to sex so much today that proper education is necessary.

“Sex is everywhere in school and there are very few kids who go to school without hearing about it,” said Janet Solomon.

Beth Soules supports the district’s efforts and agreed with the system of teaching sex education in a coeducational setting. She said it allows all students to know they are receiving the same message.

Soules said her son participated in the class and saw the condom demonstration as a medical presentation and did not find it vulgar.

“He felt they (sex education opponents) didn’t understand the reality of what’s going on in our community,” she said.

A few did speak against the class, including Jerry Snavely, who was against the coeducational setting and felt the information was inappropriate.

“Kids don’t always know what’s best for them,” he said, adding that sometimes parents think their children are smarter than their parents, which is not true.

Scarborough resident Donna Pierce, who first raised the issue with the district, said that last year she was not properly informed about the lesson.

“Honestly I was shocked because it did not state that on the letter,” she said. “As a parent we really want to be informed about what’s going on in the classroom.”

She asked the district to investigate using an alternative, abstinence-based class like the one offered by Heritage of Maine called Heritage Keepers.

Mary Schiavoni, president of Heritage of Maine, said the program has been used in four public schools in the state, although two have been abbreviated lessons. It also has been used in many faith-based schools and Catholic schools.

Heritage Keepers is a character-based abstinence program and is not a faith-based program, she said. The program is intended to work with the school and does include some lessons on contraceptives, but stresses abstinence.

The program is free and Heritage of Maine will provide the instructors. These instructors are not certified teachers, but are trained in the Heritage Keepers program and serve as guest speakers.

Schiavoni said research on the program indicates it is highly successful and after one year participating students report a 41 percent decline in sexual activity.

But district officials said it would be a very unusual circumstance to have a third party come in and instruct students on any issue, especially one as sensitive as sex education.

Scarborough parent Donna Pierce speaks to the Board of Education about the schools’ sex education program last week.

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