PORTLAND — The School Department has decided to do away with its current sex education program and integrate the instruction into the health curriculum.
The current Family Living and Human Sexuality program for younger children is run by several specially trained instructors who come into classrooms to teach what can be sensitive and difficult subject matter about puberty and basic sexual education.
Middle school and high school students receive sex education from their health teachers.
But now the schools will rely on its classroom teachers to implement the Family Living and Sexual Health program for fourth- and fifth-grade students.
Health teachers will be implementing the state Department of Education’s Best Practices HIV prevention program for middle and high school students, which covers a range of sexual education topics, including HIV and sexually transmitted disease information.
The new programs are supported by the Family Planning Association of Maine, which is providing training and purchasing the new curriculums.
Lynette Johnson, director of prevention programming for the Maine FPA, said they typically support programs that integrate sexual education into the curriculum, rather than having it as a separate program.
“If it’s integrated into the curriculum, then no matter whoever comes into that position, they can say, ‘this is what we do, this is the curriculum,'” she said.
The new programs are evidence-based, meaning they have proved effective in other districts.
The current Family Living program came under national scrutiny when it was revealed that King Middle School made birth control available to its students.
School Board member Sarah Thompson said the current program is very successful and that many people will be upset to see it come to an end.
“It’s been one of those things we just don’t want to let go of,” she said.
She said the King Middle School discussion allowed the district to better communicate the program to parents, and that, in the end, more parents allowed their children to participate as a result.
Thompson said she was concerned that students would be less likely to report sexual abuse to their teachers, who they see every day.
She said that there have been cases of students using an anonymous question box, which the current program utilizes, to ask questions about sexual abuse and other sensitive issues that they are reluctant to bring up with their teachers.
“Who’s going to tell their homeroom teacher they’re being sexually abused?” Thompson said.
Margaret Hoyt, who currently teaches sex education to the younger students, said she has had many sexual abuse disclosures.
“I’ve had classroom teachers come back to me and say ‘I can’t believe so-and-so didn’t tell me he or she was being abused,'” Hoyt said.
She said she is deeply concerned that classroom teachers and the health educators in the upper levels will not be comfortable enough or trained to respond to these kinds of difficult situations, or that students will simply not reveal sensitive information to their teachers.
“I’ve had students shush me when their teacher walks in while I’m in the middle of a lesson,” Hoyt said.
Dan Chuhta, a curriculum coordinator who has been working on the new program, said that is something the committee charged with making this change has been discussing.
“We are going to have the support of school nurses and social workers, who will be available to support the teachers during delivery (of the curriculum),” Chuhta said. “These folks will be available to support teachers if those kinds of issues come up.”
There is also concern that leaving sex education up to teachers puts the program at risk of inconsistency, including the possibility that some teachers may refuse to teach certain topics, such as birth control and abortion, for religious reasons.
“Obviously, there’s been concern from teachers, but there’s also been interest,” Chuhta said.
He explained that the fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum, which will be taught by classroom teachers, does not contain the more controversial issues, like abortion, which is taught by the health teachers in the upper grades.
Johnson said the FPA provides training to teachers and will even come into classrooms to model a class, if a teacher is particularly uncomfortable with how to present material.
However, School Nurse Coordinator Amanda Rowe expressed concern that relying on an outside agency that could lose its funding at any moment, is a gamble for the district.
“I’ve had concerns from the beginning, not because of the change, but because if you don’t plan really well, it doesn’t happen,” Rowe said. “I’m concerned we’re going to lose this information for our youngest folks.”
Until very recently, funding was up in the air for the program when it looked like the state might cut funds to the FPA.
“We try not to have recurrent costs,” Johnson said. “Once the teachers have been trained, the district can do it on their own.”
The School Board is expected to hold its first reading of the new program on June 7. A workshop will be scheduled for a future meeting, and Thompson said she expects a second reading and public hearing to be held early in the fall.
Portland Education Association President Kathleen Casasa did not respond to several requests for comment.