The school board of the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District (LCISD) had some unusual visitors Thursday, December 16. Dressed in their black "WAC is watching" T-shirts and accompanied by drumming from their trademark drum corps, members of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC) spoke at the LCISD's monthly school board meeting, protesting the board's recent shift in policy on sex education.
LCISD, located in the Richmond-Rosenberg area of Fort Bend County about 20 miles southwest of Houston, doesn't have to deal with controversy very often. Not surprisingly, parents at that night's school board meeting seemed shocked and a little confused by the WAC drummers who greeted them at the door with fliers listing grim statistics on AIDS and teenage pregnancy.
Scotty Mecum, an LCISD English teacher and WAC member, organized the protest after she discovered that the school board had adopted an abstinence/fidelity-only approach to sex education -- although it's still unclear exactly what the board's stand is. Last April, Dr. Paul Slocumb, deputy superintendent for instruction, sent a memo to district health teachers ordering them to teach students to abstain before marriage and practice fidelity after marriage. No mention of AIDS, birth control or alternative lifestyles could be part of the curriculum. Mecum learned about the dictum this semester and says she was appalled. "At least 60 percent of our students are sexually active," she claims, on the basis of her experience in LCISD, "and we [LCISD] have one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in Texas." She equates the change in policy with "sticking our heads in the sand."
Concerned about the health of her students, Mecum decided to draw attention to the board's position. One WAC member told the school board, "More than one million teenage girls will become pregnant in the U.S. each year. That's one out of ten girls under the age of 20." The WAC member cited statistics gathered by the Center for Population Options, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that focuses on adolescent behavior and education in relation to family planning. Said another member, "One-third of 15-year-old boys and one-fourth of 15-year-old girls have had sexual intercourse."
Mecum insists that she has nothing against teaching abstinence and fidelity. But she also believes that educators have to live in the real world and not ignore the serious threat of AIDS to the young. "Abstinence and fidelity are noble ideas," she told the school board, "but the fact is that there's a killer out there called AIDS and I believe we're committing a criminal act by withholding life-saving information from our students.... All we're asking for is choice, that options be readily available so that both parents and teachers have a choice."
Before the April memo circulated, LCISD had an inclusive sex-education program which taught about abstinence -- but also taught about AIDS, condoms and safe sex. Why did the board decide to change? Slocumb said it did so at the behest of the community. "There was a group called the Citizens for Excellence in Education who were the first to take that position," he said. "We appointed a districtwide committee of educators, parents and administrators who worked for a year trying to come up with a position statement. [In] the report that they finally submitted there was not a consensus within the group.... I took several options to the board and the board voted based on those options."
Citizens for Excellence in Education is a national Christian fundamentalist group that claims a nationwide membership of 130,000 in 1,210 chapters dedicated to bringing Christian morality back into the public school systems by taking over local school boards. In an article from the December 1993 issue of The Sojourner, a feminist monthly magazine based in Boston, CEE founder Bob Simonds claims that the group helped elect 3,200 school board members across the nation in 1992 alone. Simonds' handbook, "How to Elect Christians to Office," promises, "We can take complete control over all local school boards. This would allow us to determine all local policy, select good textbooks [and] curriculum programs." According to the handbook, "the atheism of secular humanism" has caused moral decay in society, and the school system presents the "battleground of testing for the church."
How big a part the CEE played in the school board's decision to alter the district's sex-education policy is unclear. But at least one board member, W.C. McClellan, vocally supports the goals of the CEE. After WAC gave its presentation, McClellan defended the board's position by saying that the Founding Fathers' doctrine of separation was meant not to keep religion out of government but to keep government out of religion. "The problem before us," he said, "is to redesign the wall of separation that will let the heart of religious values into our public life while keeping religious institutions free of political influence.... [Patrick] Henry and [Thomas] Jefferson would both say that God is not a four-letter word."
But religious values aside -- what, exactly, was the outcome of the board vote? That's a matter of some disagreement. According to Slocumb, the board voted to restrict health teachers from giving instruction on anything besides abstinence and fidelity unless a student specifically requests other information, in which case the teacher may speak to that student in private. Slocumb went so far as to say that any teacher who teaches about birth control or alternative lifestyles in the classroom will be "in violation of school board policy" and will be subject to disciplinary action.
But the superintendent of LCISD, Dr. Michael Zolkoski, thought the board decided to give teachers the option of teaching only abstinence and fidelity, based on what students and their parents want. "It's not a policy," he emphasized. "We had a bunch of people come in and look at a program ... that the board adopted. And it's an option." According to Zolkoski, LCISD teachers are still free to teach about AIDS and birth control.
Sally Yates, secretary of the school board, confirms that what happened last April has some board members, including herself, confused. "I was very surprised to find out [about] the memo that had been sent out," she recalled. "I am very much a believer that abstinence is your first line of defense [against AIDS and pregnancy], but I have real reservations when we have 12-year-old girls who have already had a baby.... I'm not sure it's enough.... It was never my intention to forbid the discussion of anything else." Yates said the board originally intended to change its position from the previously lax "it's okay, do whatever you want to do" stance to one that actively promoted abstinence before marriage. But Yates also believed that discussion about birth control would continue, only within the context of married couples' family planning.
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According to the minutes of the April 6 meeting, the board voted that "all required health courses at the junior/senior high-school level are to be taught in a manner that advocates abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage." The board voted unanimously in favor of this position statement but, as Yates pointed out, "I don't see that we voted not to talk about contraception." Yates did add, however, that other school board members have told her they support Slocumb's interpretation of the statement.
How much the LCISD's community actually supports these conservative views also remains in question. Mecum knows of one health teacher in LCISD who, after reading the memo from the board, sent permission slips home with the students asking parents if their children could learn about birth control and AIDS. Out of 92 students, Mecum says, only two children did not have permission from their parents to participate in an inclusive sex-education program.
On the other hand, Tracey Whiting, who described himself as a concerned father, praised the school board for its sex-education policy. He advocated abstinence, arguing that since condoms can't protect against the spread of HIV 100 percent of the time, teaching that condoms ensure safe sex is "dangerous and irresponsible." Whiting worried that the school district might be sued for medical malpractice and listed alternative sources, such as the Fort Bend Family Health Center and Planned Parenthood, that could teach teenagers about birth control. "Our district should not be put at risk for facing lawsuits over medical malpractice," he said. "Our schools should be a source of moral leadership for our children, who tend to live up or down to our expectations." Whiting emphasized the importance of teaching children self-restraint and of giving them the tools they need to say "no" to sexual activity. Whiting also argued that teaching children about birth control only encourages them to have sex.
It seems that the battle between ideology and reality has just begun for the school board of LCISD. Yates has said she will work toward clarifying the board's position, but she hopes that ultimately parents will be given the choice of what their children will or will not learn in a sex-education class. And while Yates works on the inside, Mecum and WAC will continue to fight on the outside. "Our purpose is to draw attention to this matter," says Mecum, "and ... we're not going to stop until something is done.