EDUCATION INTERRUPTUS

A SCOTTSDALE PARENTS' GROUP WITH TIES TO PAY ROBERTSON IS MAKING SURE THE SEX-ED CURRICULUM DOESN'T GO ALL THE WAY

It's three days before Christmas, and tired shoppers--including Jennifer, a preppy young woman--are resting against a marble fountain at Fashion Square. A graduate of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Jennifer's home on break. She's a junior in college.

With her are two boys, both high school freshmen, both wearing baseball caps. Jon is Jennifer's brother. Dave's a friend. Jon attends St. Mary's High School, a private school; Dave goes to Saguaro.

When a reporter asks about sex education, the boys titter and snort, Ö la Beavis and Butt-head. Heh heh. Heh heh. But Jennifer isn't giggling. Over the din, she explains that she is glad she waited until she was in college, and in love, to have sex. "It makes me sick to my stomach" to hear about 13-year-olds having sex, she says. And yet she supports teaching freshmen like Jon and Dave about where to buy condoms and how contraceptives work. You have to, she says. Jennifer didn't know anyone at Saguaro who contracted HIV, or any other sexually transmitted diseases, but she did know a lot of people who were sexually active, including two girls who became pregnant in high school. One had the baby; the other had an abortion.

"I'm really worried about my brother," she says, hugging him. The boys laugh. "Yeah," they answer, they have classmates who are having sex. Heh heh. Heh heh. They sock each other in the arm and pull their caps down over their eyes. Jennifer rolls her own eyes, suppressing a smile.

"This is what scares me," she says. "Here they laugh about it and joke about it. Sex can be such a wonderful thing. But it will take [them] so long to learn about it."

When Jennifer was a teen, there was no such thing as sex education at Saguaro or the other three high schools in the Scottsdale Unified School District. But if all goes as scheduled, her friend Dave will begin instruction in sex education this month. After a year of rancorous community debate, the district's governing board voted unanimously in November to approve its first-ever high school sex-education curriculum.

Because of the efforts of a well-organized and vocal group with ties to televangelist Pat Robertson, however, the curriculum is a pale shadow of what was proposed. The sex-ed battle in Scottsdale stands as a vivid example of how well-financed national organizations such as Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which recently opened a branch office in Phoenix, are beginning to affect policy at the local level, countering groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Policy, which traditionally have held sway in the realm of sex education.

The Scottsdale school board wound up adopting a watered-down version of a curriculum named Reducing the Risk, which stresses abstinence but also offers some rather explicit instruction about contraception. In the vernacular of sex-ed academics, it's known as an "abstinence-but" program.

The debate triggered outbursts from both those who support Reducing the Risk and those who demanded an "abstinence-only" program. Hundreds of people showed up for public meetings.

Sex education isn't required by law in this state, although in 1989, the Arizona Board of Education approved guidelines that must be used if a district opts to offer such instruction. The Arizona State Legislature passed a law in 1991 mandating AIDS education, but because the mandate is unfunded, it will probably be done away with in the upcoming legislative session, according to legislators.

For many years, Scottsdale has had sex education for grades 6 through 8, but it hasn't prompted an outcry--partially because the curriculum deals almost exclusively with abstinence and partially because no one happened to notice when it came up for approval. Students cannot get the instruction without their parents' permission; only about 5 percent keep their kids out.

In high school, it's different. The original Reducing the Risk lessons called for the teacher to unwrap and display a condom, while giving instructions for its use. It also called for a trip to the drugstore to see where contraceptives are displayed, and a discussion about dental dams--latex barriers used to discourage disease transmission during oral sex. The condom demonstration, pharmacy field trip and dental-dam data all were exorcised from Scottsdale's final version, as were some references to homosexuality. Role-playing was toned down.

The sanitized version of Reducing the Risk includes instruction about pregnancy prevention and the dangers of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. It attempts to develop communications skills that promote abstinence and encourage kids to refrain from unprotected sex. There is general information about contraceptives.

How significantly did the debate alter Reducing the Risk? The district's head nurse, Peg Straus, calls the changes "moderate," while the chief critic of Reducing the Risk crows that the curriculum has been "emasculated."

Mary Halter, a professional sex educator who wrote the district's curriculum for grades 6 through 8 and supported Reducing the Risk, leans toward the latter view. She says, "We've diluted it so it won't have any impact on the kids at all. The ones who are sexually active and need to know about using condoms, they're not going to get the right information. And the ones that aren't sexually active, it's not going to affect them one way or another."

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