Proposed changes to the Westbrook health curriculum continue to be questioned by some parents even as the School Committee prepares to vote on the changes this week.

The School Committee will discuss the changes and vote on them at a meeting tonight, May 24. On Monday night, the school’s Curriculum Committee voted to send the health curriculum to the School Committee for approval.

The change to the eighth-grade health education curriculum will reinstate classes taught in Westbrook in the 1990s regarding prevention of pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted diseases as part of comprehensive “good health” education.

The schools will send out letters to parents at the beginning of each school year informing the parents of what sex ed classes their child will partake in that year. A second letter will go out to parents closer to when the class begins that will explain in detail exactly what will be taught in the class. Along with the letters, the schools will host a night for interested parents to provide an in-depth overview of what the schools intend to teach in the classes.

Each parent will have the right to opt their child out of the classes if they wish. Westbrook parent Laura Rodrigues made a suggestion at the committee meeting Monday night to have an opt-in policy as opposed to an opt-out policy, where kids wouldn’t take a class unless their parents signed the appropriate form.

“An opt-in policy might raise the awareness of some of the adults in the community,” she said.

Committee Chairman Don Perkins considered the suggestion and asked Assistant Superintendent Jan Breton and Wescott Junior High Principal Brian Mazjanis whether it was feasible. The two expressed concern whether it was feasible to get forms back from every parent, given that many parents, while interested in their child’s education, do not communicate with the school well and would likely ignore a form sent home.

“My concerns would be logistical only,” said Breton. “We would need a fall-back position if we don’t hear back from parents. Maybe the child does (take the class), maybe the child doesn’t.”

The committee voted 11-0 to continue with the opt-out method with the letters and parent night.

Perkins stressed the importance of teaching the new curriculum in a way that doesn’t suggest it’s inevitable kids are going to have sex. Instead, the classes should stress abstinence while showing the kids ways to avoid disease and pregnancy.

“The question of abstinence needs to be taught thoughtfully, methodically and not dismissively,” he said. “The same with contraception. The way the topic is addressed needs to be consistent and thoughtful.”

The issue of teaching a unit on contraception to eighth graders has raised concerns among some Westbrook parents. At a public hearing in March, several parents spoke out against teaching about contraceptives in junior high and many parents spoke in favor of it.

“People have different opinions,” said Breton, who added final approval of the curriculum was moved up from June 7 to May 24 because it’s “time to get closure on this.”

The curriculum committee also focused on the question of parents not having enough time to review the changes to the curriculum before going to a final vote.

“I really still do not the see the true community involvement in this very, very important issue,” said Westbrook parent Robert Foley. “I really much would have preferred this curriculum available a month ago.”

Perkins and Breton said that these changes had been discussed more than normal curriculum changes because of their controversial nature. Breton said normally the curriculum committee has the power to approve the curriculum, which is then sent to the full school committee as a courtesy. However, in this case, the full school committee will vote to give final approval.

Very little of the actual curriculum was discussed Monday night. Westbrook parent George Rodrigues, who has been outspoken against the changes, questioned whether the curriculum was based on curriculum established by an organization dedicated to sex ed.

“It’s tightly married to the (organization’s) curriculum,” he said.

In a press release issued Monday, the Christian Civic League criticized the Westbrook School Department for allegedly withholding requested information from the League and pushing through the changes to the curriculum without allowing Westbrook parents time to analyze them. The release said the curriculum committee took the curriculum from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Westbrook School Health Coordinator Sandy Hale said that was not true, that the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States curriculum was used to begin discussion, but that the final school curriculum was based on the ideas of local educators.

The League also alleged that the school department has withheld at least one document from of a Freedom of Information Act request and is attempting to draw “an impenetrable curtain of secrecy around the entire issue” of the curriculum changes.

“That’s not true. We have complied,” said Breton, adding that the school department isn’t required to postpone decisions on curriculum because of Freedom of Information Act requests.

The full school committee is expected to approve the curriculum at its meeting Wednesday night, according to Breton. The meeting will be held in room 114 at Westbrook High School at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.

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