Should Sexual Orientation Be Taught in the Classroom?

Kids grow up inundated with messages about sex. From the Internet to the TV to the playground, they're seeing and hearing more about sex than ever before.

And then there's the classroom, where many middle school children get their first formal lesson on sex. Sex education in schools has sparked controversy since its inception: How should it be taught? What should be taught?

Now, there's a new question: Should sexual orientation be part of a sex-ed curriculum?

Earlier this month, several schools in Montgomery County in Maryland launched a pilot program for eighth and 10th grade health classes that includes references to sexual orientation, homophobia and transsexuality.

"Young people are growing up in a world where sexual orientation isn't as big of a taboo topic as it used to be for many people of different generations," said Monica Rodriguez of the Sexuality Information and Education Council.

But some parents are outraged.

"Starting at the eighth grade levels, we are concerned about the ability of these 12- and 13-year-olds to be able to fully grasp what is being presented to them," said Michelle Turner, co-founder of the Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum.

Turner helped create the group in late 2004 when the Montgomery school board first decided to introduce sexual orientation into the classroom. She believes the curriculum encourages students to accept individuals who are homosexual, which she believes is a choice that many kids have been taught is wrong or inappropriate.

Fellow Montgomery resident and father Jim Kennedy disagrees.

"Some people think that you can just not mention something and it will just go away," he said.

Kennedy and others argue that the program will help promote tolerance among students. Dr. Justin Richardson, who has written on the subject of sex education, isn't surprised by the controversy the program is causing.

"I think that, given that some of these children sitting in these classrooms are going to grow up to be gay, I think that schools do have a responsibly to try and help those kids come to terms with themselves and their sexual orientation," he said.

But Richardson understands why some parents might worry about the curriculum.

"Parents will continue to have a concern about what their child's sexual orientation is going to be, it's something that is out of their control and I think most parents in the back of their mind know that," he said. "So they're naturally concerned about some of the other influences that will affect their child's sexual orientation."

What Parents Can Do

Currently, there are at least seven states that prohibit a positive portrayal of homosexuality in schools. But sex education varies from state to state, and the actual curriculum is often decided by individual school districts.

"Good Morning America's" parenting contributor Anne Pleshette Murphy offered advice to parents whose kids are going through sex education, no matter their school district's curriculum.

"Before you get upset about a particular curriculum, you should really know what's in it. In most schools you can get a copy of it or at least find out what it is," she said. "And remember that you can always opt out of the class if you're not happy. There are alternative classes available in most schools."

Murphy suggested that concerned parents should focus on what their kids are seeing on TV and doing on the Internet rather than what's going on in the classroom.

"Forty minutes in school is nothing compared to the hours of TV and Internet they are absorbing -- messages you may not be comfortable with. Try to find out where they are getting their information," she said. "These messages can be more worrisome than any curriculum."

Murphy said parents should be aware that talking about different sexual orientations does not necessarily condone or encourage homosexuality.

"There is no evidence that talking about sexual orientation has any influence in sending a child down that path," she said. "The strongest evidence is the many children living with gay parents who don't show any higher incidence of homosexuality."

If anything, Murphy advised that parents use the debate about sex education to communicate with kids.

"Just remember that this is a good opportunity to work on your communication about sexuality with your child and help them have a healthy attitude towards sexuality," she said.