PORTLAND — A week after more than a dozen residents spoke out, the School Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 21, will vote on a proposal to have regular classroom teachers take over the elementary sex education program this spring.
Interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers has proposed filling a vacant health teacher position at Lincoln Middle School with the current elementary school sex education specialist, who oversees the “Family Living” program at all of the city’s elementary schools.
The measure, projected to save $38,000 to $40,000 in the current budget, is being considered to help offset a $1.8 million curtailment in education subsidy from the state. Much of that curtailment can be dealt with administratively, but the committee must make the final decision on the sex education proposal, since it affects curriculum.
Whynot-Vickers presented two options for delivering early sex education (introductions to puberty, sexual harassment and the like), both of which would shift the curriculum to classroom science teachers, who would have support from a combination of social workers, school nurses and high school-level sex ed teachers.
At a public hearing last week, parents said the projected savings from not filling a position is not enough to justify the risk of losing early, age-appropriate sex education – a subject currently taught by trained professionals equipped to deal with the topic.
Diana Gauvin, a teacher at Auburn Middle School, said it was the “expert anonymity” of having a professional sex education teacher that made her feel comfortable asking the tough, embarrassing questions when she attended Lyseth Elementary School.
“The No. 1 thing that made me feel good about the Family Living class is knowing I would never run into that teacher again,” she said.
Not only is that anonymity lost by shifting the responsibility over to regular classroom teachers, but Gauvin said the proposal puts teachers in a difficult position, since they have little time to prepare and train for the curriculum.
“I know I wouldn’t be equipped to teach it,” she said, “and it’s not because I’m unwilling.”
Mary-Anne Scally McKinnon, a teacher at Lincoln Middle School, said she values the boundaries established by the current programming. “There are just some things I don’t want know,” she said of her students’ personal lives.
Barry Lewis, whose son is a freshman at Portland High school, said the strength of the sex education program is that it starts early, when some children are either beginning to go through puberty or know some one who is. Having early, reliable information helps ease the anxiety, especially for those children who do not have parents willing or able to talk with them.
“Every child should live with a caring elder,” he said, “but not all do.”
Among those criticizing the proposed cut were health advocates and professionals.
Andrew Bossie, director of the Maine AIDs Alliance, said diagnosed cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the state are on the rise, especially among urban children 19-years-old or younger. Meanwhile, funding for education, prevention and treatment are on the decline.
While the current budget shortfall is of concern, Bosse warned of more “dramatic fiscal ramifications” upon city services, should teen pregnancy and STD rates increase.
Michael Hiltz, a registered nurse, said the program sets up a basis of knowledge about sexual abuse and harassment that will be built upon in later years, hopefully to evolve into safer sex practices. Without it, Hiltz said children will turn to the pop culture and the locker room.
“We’ll be short-changing fifth- and sixth-graders of this knowledge,” he said. “A child’s curiosity is limitless, however a child’s education is limited. Our budget issues will pass, but deadly diseases and unintended pregnancies and births will not.”