Empire Editorial: No hidden agenda, just worries for students' health

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2007

At least 75 Juneau-Douglas High School students tried to kill themselves in the last year.

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That sobering statistic, from the most recent youth-risk behavior survey, is just one reason district educators strongly believe they need a new K-12 curriculum called "Skills for a Healthy Life."

This curriculum largely covers topics that have been taught in schools for years - nutrition, the effects of drugs and alcohol, sexual development.

One single paragraph of the Grade 1 curriculum, however, drew parents out by the dozens to the Juneau School Board meeting on Tuesday night. It calls for teaching students to "accept and respect children from all types of families."

Let's face it - the real fear is that teachers are going to talk about gay relationships and encourage students to condone them.

Parents should rest easy. That's not the district's intention at all. Most first-graders aren't thinking about same-sex couples, and teachers don't plan to go there.

What they do plan to teach is the fact that families come in all different shapes these days. Some kids are raised by their grandparents. Many have two moms and two dads because their parents are divorced and remarried. Many are raised by a single mother or father.

In the not-so-distant past, kids growing up without both a mom and dad at home were stigmatized. Children of divorced couples or single parents were often whispered about in class and jeered on the playground.

The intent of the new curriculum is to let kids feel comfortable and included, even when their home life doesn't look like Beaver Cleaver's.

Some argue that teaching self-esteem and respecting others is the domain of parents, not teachers.

Educators, however, know that when kids feel harassed, mocked or threatened at school, they have a harder time focusing on the three R's. Making kids feel safe and accepted in school improves grades - and that's teachers' business.

While some parents have other concerns about the proposed curriculum, too many people are getting hung up on a tiny fragment of this extensive program.

About 11 percent of JDHS students said they have been physically forced to have sex with someone, according to the youth risk survey. More than 12 percent of local high school students are binge drinkers. Almost one in 10 students smokes marijuana every day.

Juneau schools need this health curriculum because it teaches kids the consequences of drugs; how to deal with depression; what to do if someone tries to rape them.

Some parents have requested the school board require parent notification when sensitive issues are to be discussed so they can pull their children from class if they wish. Such a policy is reasonable.

Other people want the district to require parental permission to "opt in" on student participation in sensitive discussions, much as a permission slip is required for class trips. That means logistical headaches for teachers, who often have to chase down permission slips so kids can be included in programs.

It also means children from troubled families would sometimes be excluded from classes they desperately need - on drug use and sexual assault - because these are the types of families least likely to turn in the required permission slips.

When the district is facing such appalling rates of attempted suicide, rape and drug abuse, it would be irresponsible to vote down this new health curriculum.

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