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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Speaking Out on Sex Education

November 20, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL

Whenever Paul W. Cook reads a newspaper story or commentary about the growing number of teen-age pregnancies--and he's read a lot of them recently--he can't help thinking about the way it might have been.

During his 13 years as superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, he won international attention for the widely copied sex education program he started there. Unhappily, his educational career was cut short by the same program.

In 1969, Cook, battered by relentless pressure from opponents who regarded Anaheim's sex education program as everything from a Communist conspiracy to the work of the devil, suffered a heart attack. The next year, he retired, no longer able or willing to spend most of his working hours defending a program that made up only a small part of what was generally regarded as a progressive and effective educational system.

Today, Cook--now 78--lives across the street from a golf course in San Clemente in a house he and his wife, Henrietta, built in 1973. He's had no recurrence of heart trouble since he left Anaheim. He looks youthful and vigorous, plays golf several times a week, follows public affairs closely--and is writing a book. About sex education. A book, he says, that will be directed primarily at high school students, giving them basic information that they someday can pass on to their own children.

He feels the time has come to speak out.

"AIDS," he says, "has made sex education a life-or-death matter. Thousands of young people are going to be infected if we don't give them proper information. But it can't be done in isolation. It needs to be put into the perspective of sex education in general. And that still faces many of the same problems it did when the Anaheim program was under attack. I don't know of any fear that traumatizes people in our society so much as honesty and plain talk to our kids about sex."

Paul Cook learned that kind of honesty growing up on a ranch in the Imperial Valley. Educated at Dartmouth, he returned to Southern California to start a career as a school administrator. He didn't charge into Anaheim as a crusader for sex education. He arrived there quietly in 1951 to head up the elementary school system, and six years later, he was named superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District.

Cook explains that Anaheim's sex education program started almost casually, in a small way and for a specific purpose. During the late 1950s and early '60s, the athletic coaches at Anaheim High School offered voluntary classes relating sex information for the increasing number of students who were being drafted into military service out of high school. When female students requested a similar program through their own coaches, a group of adults attended a school board meeting to protest the classes, claiming that a majority of local citizens would oppose sex education if they knew about it. So the school board and Cook suspended the program and appointed a citizens' advisory committee to find out how the community really felt about the issue.

The committee spent almost a year reviewing all of the educational materials used in the sex education program and holding open meetings to solicit citizens' opinions. Then the committee employed a professional research company to conduct a study of community attitudes. Result: more than 90% of the citizens sampled said sex education should be offered in both junior and senior high schools.

It was on this bedrock that the program was built.

"I knew of no precedent for such studies," says Cook today. "We not only had the overwhelming support of the community but the benefit of the extensive research work done by our citizens' committee."

The program was voluntary (less than 1% of the parents requested that their children be removed) and was taught from grades seven through 12. Teachers and curriculum were carefully selected and regularly reviewed. The Wall Street Journal called it "a national model for scope and candor," and, recalls Cook, "We sold almost 1,500 copies of our course of study all over the world."

Then, after six years of accolades, the program came under attack from a well-organized local group synchronized with similar efforts across the country. Mixed in with those who regarded sex education as part of a Communist conspiracy were those who argued that sexual information should be dispensed in the family and churches, where ethics and moral standards could be integrated (a point with which Cook says he agrees totally). These critics also felt that sex education encourages promiscuity (Cook doesn't agree) by breaking down barriers of modesty and lending an air of permissiveness to sex.

But reason, Cook recalls, was mostly submerged in emotion through almost two years of strife over the issue at school board meetings. Finally, in 1969, the dissidents won a majority on the board (14% of the electorate voted), and the sex education program was doomed.

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