It’s not just Maine

The news that at the direction of the Portland School Board the school district was giving out birth control pills to middle school students created a sobering reminder of how far we’ve come. What if your local school district gave such powerful, body altering drugs without your permission? If not birth control drugs, what other parental prerogatives has your children’s school taken upon itself?

We are reminded of the time our son visited his doctor at age 12. The doctor came to the waiting room after the examination and casually announced that he had told our son that he could call his doctor if he had any questions about “sex and life” without the parents knowing about it. Our son probably thought that was pretty cool. We let it slide (we were busy) until we began a slow burn. Who did he think he was? He was setting up a privacy screen between parents and child. He did not know our family, our faith, our practices and attitudes. He was not a close friend, not a priest. We determined the doctor had overstepped his authority. After a few days, we telephoned our HMO and changed doctors.

Who among us wants to give up the responsibility of raising our children with our faith and morals? Apparently the School Board of Portland, Maine has assumed authority for sexual practices in the town. It has assumed that 11-year-olds are going to have sex, so members of the school board better do something about it. They need to protect the children (and they are children). Is this the responsibility of the school system or the parents? It was often said of some boarding schools that “parents were the last to know,” if something happened at school.

And how well have our school boards been in exercising their supervisory authority over the sexual climate of our public schools? Just a few years ago the American Association of University Women published a study, conducted at Wellesley College, about the sexual climate in our public schools. Entitled the “Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing and Sexual Harassment in School,” the study found that 81 percent of all grade 8 through 11 students experienced some form of sexual harassment. In this study sexual harassment was defined as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life.” Both girls and boys reported that the harassment in their school made them feel embarrassed [53 percent and 32 percent respectively] and self conscious [32 percent and 16 percent respectively]. Students responding to the survey reported being touched and grabbed in a sexual way, being forced to kiss someone or perform other sexual acts, and being called “gay” or “lesbian.” Students also admitted that the sexual harassment often occurs right in front of educators.

Where is the authority of the school boards in these hostile hallways? If the schools did their job, they would have a dress code which would go some distance in protecting girls from unwanted advances. It would eliminate the skimpy skirt, the plunging neckline, bare bellies and low slung jeans.

As Catholics, we accept the authority of the Church. If the school system allows practices which offend our teachings, we do not belong there. Our faith does not permit us simply to assume they are having sex. Rather we are quaint enough to assume our daughters and sons will remain chaste until marriage. Clear expectations of chaste behavior beat harangues about their sexual behavior every time! Still, to uphold our standards, we need as much help as we can get. The media and advertising world have made being a parent more difficult. Therefore, the schools our young attend should provide a counter-balance to the sexually explicit programming to which children are so often exposed.

While the public schools in the U.S. have in recent decades made major efforts at what is called “sex education,” the content of the courses and materials is descriptive and morally neutral. At present of the 93,000 schools in the country a mere 700 schools have adopted the “abstinence-only” sex education approach.

Catholic parents who expect to find their attitudes reflected in the public school they have been paying for many years may be very disappointed. Expectations of a Catholic parent ride hard against the hip culture the young may have to deal with. This clash of beliefs is what makes Catholic schools a better choice, if one is serious about raising a young Christian. Our Catholic schools have a mission to raise students with Catholic social and moral teachings. Many other schools, no matter their social and academic prestige, do not share this mission.

The working parents are hard pressed to find out what really goes on in school. Here are a few ideas to follow when visiting a school.

Watch how students treat each other. Are they generally polite and friendly? How do they treat you, a visitor?

Observe how the girls are dressed. Are their clothes in keeping with your sense of modesty?

Interview some students and, among other things, gauge the climate of sexuality in the school.

Read the mission statement of the school, if there is one. Test it against your expectations for your child.

Ask to see the curriculum. Are the reading materials in keeping with your ideals of an education for American Catholics? Is it permeated with secular political correctness?

If possible, find out about the attitudes towards Catholicism in the school. Are Catholic teachings ridiculed or respected?

If you are bent on remaining with public schools, get involved and work to have influence. Or gain real power and authority: Run for school board.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.