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Parents send up a mighty roar over a manual for teachers on sex education. From Respekt.by Hana Capova 7 October 2010
PRAGUE | With the start of a new school year, the minister of education is set to call on the principals of Czech schools to let parents know what is being said about sex in the schools. A public debate on this explosive subject was recently unleashed by a manual that was supposed to act as a guide for teachers on sex education. In response to protests from principals and conservatively minded parents, the ministry withdrew the manual over the summer holiday. But while the publication may have vanished, the intriguing questions it raised remain. Should each Czech child graduate from elementary school with a basic knowledge of sex? Or is this the exclusive realm of parents? And what does a “basic knowledge” actually mean?
AN UNFORTUNATE BOOKLET
Studies show that children get most of their information on sex from friends. Only a small percentage of their knowledge comes from the family or school. Although a framework educational program issued three years ago charged schools with teaching children about sex, it left it up to the schools to decide exactly how and to what extent they would do so. Last year in the spring, then-Education Minister Ondrej Liska decided to offer more detailed directions. “The schools have some catching up to do in this area,” says Jindrich Kitzberger, Liska’s former deputy minister who is now serving as an adviser to the current minister, Josef Dobes. The ministry gave teachers recommendations on which themes they should discuss with children (aside from biological details, perhaps about sexually transmitted diseases, premature sexual experiences, or sex crimes). It also approached several experts who developed some subjects in greater detail. The result was a manual for teachers, Sex Education – Selected Themes.
The 70-page booklet, which every school received this year in the spring, caused a furor over the summer. The manual did not use kid gloves with the parents. It took as self-evident that schools should be teaching children whatever they see as appropriate about sex and in whatever manner they see fit, whether parents like it or not. And there was no shortage of controversial points. The material took contraceptives, for instance, exclusively as a measure of a society’s level of development and overlooked any health risks associated with hormonal forms of contraceptives. Some teachers were shocked at the examples of games that they could bring into their lessons for the students. In one, children would be asked to change places according to whether they have pubic hair or have started to menstruate or masturbate.
“This is not a ministerial document, but rather a collection of articles by several experts,” Kitzberger says in defense of the manual, emphasizing that it is up to the teachers to decide how or even whether they will use the material.
It is likely that the manual would end up being used in exactly the way Kitzberger imagines. Some schools would use it, while elsewhere principals would hide them away in a drawer.
But at the beginning of the summer, the ultraconservative Committee for the Protection of Parental Rights leaped into action, and along with the Christian Movement for Life, approached the elementary schools and found that 200 of 4,000 or so responded that they would not be using the manual as a guide. They also managed to collect more than 7,000 signatures for an Internet-based petition from parents outraged at the details from the manual. Later in August, the new minister, Dobes, visited the archbishop of Prague, Dominik Duka, and the conservative prime minister, Petr Necas, also weighed in with his own criticism of the manual. The minister then invited representatives of the Committee for the Protection of Parental Rights for a meeting and emerged from it to announce that he would accommodate the criticisms. “I respect this activity and I consider their representatives to be responsible parents,” the minister said. He ordered the manual, which he said “contained controversial passages,” to be removed from the ministry’s website.
“We came to the minister with clear demands, not for some kind of discussion,” noted David Loula of the Committee for the Protection of Parental Rights. Hardly lacking in self-confidence following this victory, he added, “We demanded that the manual be removed from the schools and that all instruction on sexual subjects be made voluntary.” Sitting in the Zdar nad Sazavlou office of this Christian organization, he explained what bothered him about the manual. “Sex is not described in it as part of a relationship but rather in the sense of, ‘let’s eat, play some sports, and then we’ll have sex,’” Loula said. “That is unacceptable for us and our children.”
But it is the chapter on homosexuals that really makes him see red. … In two pages, it explains to children that it is “an emotional and sexual preference people can be born with” that was removed from medical textbooks long ago and “is seen in civilized countries as a normal minority orientation.” It is thus necessary to oppose the discrimination of homosexuals that results from the persistence of certain prejudices and stereotypes. Such opinions infuriate Loula. “I consider homosexuality to be a deviation. I believe that it is curable,” Loula said, recommending that schools disregard homosexuality altogether lest they generate propaganda for this “deviation from normalcy.” He also believes his children should have the right to speak of this sexual orientation as a deviation and, for instance, refuse to shower with a boy who they think is a homosexual.
WE WILL SUE THEM
Loula’s committee was also partially successful with its second demand, that sexual instruction be made voluntary. Dobes wrote to the principals of elementary schools that they should let the parents know right from the start in September “how sex education is undertaken in the school.”
“The teachers are required to respect the viewpoint of the parents if this approach clashes with their stance on values or morality,” wrote the minister. “If the parents do not agree with the themes that are addressed, it will be necessary to ensure alternative instruction for their children during these lessons.”
Kitzberger, the minister’s adviser, said this would be difficult to put into practice because sex education is not a separate subject but is diffused throughout all the lessons. “This subject can come up at any time. You can’t say that sex will be taught on Wednesday from nine to 10,” explained the former deputy minister. It depends on each school how much they decide to tell the children about sex and about what’s related to it. It is also up to them to decide in which subject this topic will be raised and to what extent or whether an outside expert will be invited to lecture on it.
Fundamentalist Christians are horrified at the changes. “We do not want to change the biology textbooks, where sexual reproduction and reproductive organs are discussed,” Loula said. “But we want to know exactly how it is done at those schools. If it were in conflict with the moral convictions and traditions of the parents, we are prepared in their name to launch lawsuits against individual schools.”
The Committee for the Protection of Parental Rights has already successfully intervened in the way sex education is carried out in this country. That was back in 1995 when the ministry wanted to establish sex education as a separate subject. The bishops read out their viewpoint in domestic churches, declaring that schools cannot teach children in opposition to the viewpoints of their parents. Then-Education Minister Ivan Pilip accommodated the committee in the end and abandoned the separate “healthy lifestyle” hours of instruction. He also backed down by agreeing that sex education would not have to be taught at all schools but only in those where there was an interest in the subject. This voluntary approach was changed only with the adoption three years ago of the aforementioned education program framework and school education programs, which deal with basic instruction on sex.
HOW TO DO IT
The message of this year’s stormy summer holidays is clear. The debate over how much a child should learn about sex at school, what form such instruction should take, and whether all children should be required to learn some basics on this subject or only those whose parents agree with it, is set to start up again in the coming months.
The schools are ready for it. If nothing else, the ministerial manual spurred schools to put some systematic thought into the issue. Karel Specian, principal of an elementary school in Lysa nad Labem and no fan of the manual, sees it clearly. “The parents are our allies, not our enemies. I have to respect their ethical values.” He doesn’t plan to allow any games in which the children would be revealing something about their intimate life. “The natural shyness of the child has to be taken into consideration,” he said. “And furthermore, what if such a provoked child happened to say something that they did not want to say? What if this ends up having a negative impact on their relations with other children in the class?”
According to the 3-year-old education program at his school, children learn about the basic differences between men and women in third grade and examine them in more detail during natural science in fifth grade. During family studies, eighth- and ninth-graders examine sex from various vantage points, discussing contraceptives, diseases, and sexual orientation. “We give the children basic information, we do not examine their attitudes toward sexuality,” Specian said. So far no parents, even those of a religious bent, have protested against this form of sex education. The principal thinks they will not be protesting this year either.
Politicians are also slowly starting to outline their positions. “I am not a supporter of sex education in schools,” Necas said. Jaroslav Kubera, a senator for the governing Civic Democratic Party, has described sex education in schools as a socialist invention. “The state has no place getting involved in it. It is after all absolutely clear that raising children is the responsibility of parents,” he said. In contrast, Dobes wants to keep sex education in the schools. “Offering information that is appropriate for the age of the child is the school’s duty and schoolchildren have a right to receive it,” he said. “The sex education subject is no exception.” Kitzberger added, “A framework agreement and discussions with parents are possible, and even welcomed. But if the parents refuse to offer any information on sex to their child, the school is duty-bound to inform the children in their place.”
WHAT WILL THE PARENTS SAY?
A look at neighboring Germany might help in determining where these debates over sex in schools will take us. Each of the 16 lander has a slightly different approach to sex education and it is evident that the adoption of these policies was preceded by stormy disputes. In Catholic Bavaria, for example, sexuality is discussed only in the context of procreation and it is linked exclusively to marriage. In lander where Protestants predominate, sex is also discussed in the context of arousal, pleasure, and gratification. There are fundamental differences in views on masturbation. In some places, teachers speak about it in positive connotations, elsewhere it is mentioned in neutral terms, and in some lander it is not discussed at all. In some lander, contraceptives are discussed as a matter of course, in others it depends on the teacher.
Schools in Baden-Wurttemberg had their own approach to dealing with differing opinions among parents. Teachers discuss only the basic issues with children. But they have also prepared several packages containing varying amounts of information for parents. It is then up to the parents to decide on how extensive a program they want to select and how they would like to present it to their children. In Bavaria, teachers are not allowed to show any pictures of naked bodies during sex education and students are not allowed to draw or take notes during the lessons. Any film that the teacher wants to show in class must first be presented to the parents.
So far, Czech parents have not had much to say about sex education. They are often not even aware of what and how the schools are teaching their children. This September, however, the teachers – following instructions from the education minister – were to inform them of how sex education is being undertaken in their schools. Some parents will undoubtedly be eager to jump into the debate.