Eighth and 10th grade students in Montgomery County's public schools will embark on a controversial sexual- education curriculum this fall that includes discussion of sexual orientation and other GLBT-related topics. The county's school board also voted 6-1 on Tuesday, June 12, in favor of allowing teachers to tell students who ask that homosexuality is not a mental illness.
''We're particularly pleased that [Superintendent Jerry D. Weast] took the lead to add a simple and yet very important statement about homosexuality, and its perception by the medical and mental health community,'' says Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, the state's GLBT equal-rights organization.
''That change gives teachers so much more leeway to frame the issue for students,'' he says.
According to Brian Edwards, director of public information for Montgomery County Public Schools, the school board has been working to implement a comprehensive curriculum to include definitions and discussions of sexual orientation, for nearly five years.
''They thought it was important information that students needed to have, and the vote on Tuesday, was the culmination of that effort,'' Edwards says.
Students will now be taught two 45-minute lessons in grade eight, and two 45-minute lessons in grade 10 that deal with the topic of respecting differences in human sexuality. Edwards describes the additions as a ''discussion of defining terms related to sexual orientation and information regarding teaching the concepts of tolerance, empathy and respect for all people regardless of sexual orientation.''
Students in the 10th-grade level will also discuss topics involving transgender issues, and the coming-out process. They will also watch a video demonstration of proper condom use during intercourse. Edwards says most of the feedback from parents of students who field-tested a pilot program of the new curriculum recently has been positive.
''They believe these are appropriate lessons to teach our children,'' he says.
One parent who supports the curriculum is Christine Grewell, co-founder and treasurer of Teach the Facts, a coalition of parents and other supporters, who joined forces two years ago to promote an inclusive and comprehensive sex-education program in Montgomery County's public schools.
''I'm ecstatic,'' says Grewell, a mother of three. ''I think LGBT students in Montgomery County sex-education classes have been ignored long enough. It's important for all human beings to know about one another, because ignorance can lead to fear and ... bigotry.''
As expected, the curriculum has raised concern among organizations such as Parents and Friends of ExGays (PFOX).
''There have been people who have been interested in this topic from both sides of the issue, and they've made their views known to the board of education and superintendent over the last several years,'' Edwards says. ''The board believes this is the right thing to do for students and we're going forward with the curriculum changes as a result.''
In the past, PFOX has argued that if the curriculum involves discussion of GLBT topics, there should also be discussion of ''ex-gays,'' those who claim to have been ''cured'' from homosexuality.
Regina Griggs, PFOX's executive director, did not return calls to Metro Weekly seeking comment.
Grewell says everyone is included in the curriculum.
''My understanding is...heterosexuals are very well covered in the curriculum.''
According to Edwards, parents are required to sign permission slips for students to participate in the ''Family Life'' and the ''Disease Prevention and Control'' units of the health education curriculum. Before they sign permission slips, they also have the opportunity to attend meetings with the staff to review the curriculum in its entirety to make decisions about their children's participation in the lessons.
Furmansky says it's a ''good start.''
''To go from nothing to something is going to leave a lot of room for improvement in the future,'' he says.