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The Cautious Return of Sex Education


HUNTINGTON BEACH — The 80 or so parents had come to hear how the school was going to combat early-teen sex and the spread of AIDS.

But the administrators, teachers and nurses at Mesa View School in Huntington Beach knew what Orange County parents most wanted to know. They started by explaining what the school would not do. "We will not be talking about alternative lifestyles (translation: homosexuality). We will not be talking about abortion. We will not be talking about birth control. We will not bring condoms to show to your children. This is 100% abstinence."

One parent objected mildly. Even though abstinence is the goal, shouldn't the kids know about condoms?

Assistant Superintendent John Thomas, a 32-year veteran of Orange County schools, rose to handle that one. "At this point, we are strongly recommending that condoms and condom usage be taught in the home. We are stretching big-time just to get to where we are with this program."

Thomas is careful when it comes to talking sex in the schools. Because, like other school administrators, he remembers.


In the 1960s, the nation's first comprehensive sex education course was created in Orange County for Anaheim high schools, and it flourished as a national and international model. For the first time, sex education was more than the biology of reproduction. Based on concerns that children were not getting needed guidance at home, the course had teachers discuss attitudes about sex, from dating to child-rearing.

Only about 1% of students were withdrawn from the program by their parents, yet by the end of the '60s, the program lay mortally wounded. An ultra-conservative group, first organized in Orange County to help Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, had attacked sex education with unusual intensity and persistence and driven it into hiding.

Its leader, a former Army major named Jim Townsend, was blunt about his strategy: Tell school trustees you will "cause trouble like you've never seen before, and before you know it, organizations will be wanting to get rid of your principal, your school board. They'll vote against your tax overrides and bond issues." Boards would soon conclude that "this program isn't worth it," he said.

Over several tumultuous years, the strategy worked. Paul Cook, the superintendent who had championed the program, was hustled into retirement, and the program was cut back to, in essence, an anatomy lesson.

The chill spread through Orange County and beyond. Schools like Mesa View have been teaching "family life," Thomas said, but when it comes to sex, "it's anatomy--that's about it. And that has been taught since time began."

Now, the '90s are pulling sex education back into the light.

Now, according to conventional wisdom, 20% of children 10 to 14 years old have had sex, and now, thanks to AIDS, sex can kill.

Now, the numbers of unwanted pregnancies are growing fastest in the 10-to-14 age group--288 pregnancies in Orange County alone during 1990. The rate of such pregnancies is virtually the same in all neighborhoods, rich to poor, officials say.

Now, even a conservative state administration is supporting mandatory basic AIDS education for children as young as sixth-graders, a law that took effect in January. An accompanying statewide program is starting in some sixth, seventh and eighth grades to teach children how to recognize and resist pressures to have sex.


Orange County educators are handling it all very gingerly.

"We're much more cautious about this than L.A. is," Thomas said. "In L.A., they have the clinics right on the campuses in the high schools. But this is a conservative community.

"On the other hand, I believe the community has changed. I believe if we'd done this 10 years ago, we'd have gotten a lot more concern about it--a lot more concern. But now I think we would have more parent reaction if we weren't doing it. The message we're getting now is: 'Do something!' "

All sixth, seventh and eighth grades must provide AIDS instruction following state guidelines, which require that abstinence from sex and intravenous drugs be taught as the best means of avoiding the disease. Statistics on condom and other contraceptive failures must be included.

But the guidelines also require "development of refusal skills to assist pupils to overcome peer pressure." To provide that instruction, the state has funded the three-year ENABL (Education Now and Babies Later) program and is offering it free to school districts and youth organizations.


So far it's been conducted in Santa Ana, Laguna Beach and La Habra schools and will be in Newport-Mesa and Ocean View school districts before the end of the school year.

"We're really trying to reach kids before they're sexually active. It's the purest form of prevention," said Lynn E. Posey of the Coalition for Children, Adolescents and Parents, the nonprofit organization conducting ENABL in Orange County schools.

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