Dozens of parents in the Peters Township School District crammed a school board meeting Monday to express outrage over the sex education curriculum for fifth- and sixth-grade students.
At issue are two classes in the Human Growth Development curriculum, which parents say go too far and are too sexually explicit for 10- and 11-year-old children.
"I'm a mom who knows what's best for her children," said Jennifer Alexander, who has three sons.
Ms. Alexander and other parents objected to language in workbooks used in the classes, along with a page in the books that listed websites that talk about pornography, abortion and birth control.
"Someone who thinks this material is appropriate has now forged a direct line of communication with our children," said Ms. Alexander, who also complained that the name and contact information of the book's author, Mary Jo Podgurski, are included in the book.
Ms. Podgurski is an adjunct professor and childbirth educator at Washington & Jefferson College and president and founder of the Academy for Adolescent Health Inc. in Washington, Pa.
Ms. Alexander read excerpts from the book, which included details about masturbation and orgasm.
"Our children do not need this information at this age," she said. "This is crossing the line."
Ms. Alexander and other parents said they would prefer to teach their children about such issues at home. They pointed to state regulations which call for sexual education to include the biology of reproduction without the more explicit details.
"It's a parent's personal choice about how much information to give," Ms. Alexander said.
Other parents took issue with the books' acceptance of different sexual identities, including transgender and gay lifestyles.
"This is an all-out assault on traditional family values," said parent Kathy LaBellarte, who said the "liberal" curriculum sponsored by organizations such as Planned Parenthood, "wants to indoctrinate our children into thinking that homosexuality and transgender is normal."
Mental health counselor Rueben Brock, however, said he has worked with children for 15 years and said children often need an outlet to discuss matters they would rather not hear from their parents.
"Your children will find out what they want to find out," he said. "Children are safer when they have the right information."
Those sentiments were echoed by Linda Kelly, an obstetric nurse and childbirth educator from Washington, who said she has seen children as young as age 12 give birth.
"Although you're afraid of children knowing things, they need to know things," she said. "Children have access to this information everywhere."
Ms. Podgurski, who attended the meeting but didn't speak publicly, said she has been "viciously and stealthily attacked" in emails in recent days. She said the emails were widely distributed and forwarded to her. About two-thirds of the district's fifth- and sixth-graders have received the instruction, including two lessons for fifth-graders and three lessons for older classmates.
"In the last month, a group of parents have criticized my work, my character, my professionalism and my motivation," she said. "Their attack has been personal and brutal; I am transparent and open to discuss any parent's needs, yet none of these attackers gave me an opportunity to defend my work."
Ms. Podgurski said parents who were concerned about the curriculum could opt their children out of the class.
"We have always felt parents have the right to decide what their children learn," she said. "They have the right to opt out."
The work of Ms. Podgurski, a pediatric nurse and human growth educator for nearly 40 years, was also defended by James Longo, chairman of the education department at Washington & Jefferson College.
"I've worked in education for 40 years, in four states and three continents and there's no educator that I have more faith or confidence in than Mary Jo Podgurski," Mr. Longo said. "She has done more good for more children than anyone I've ever met. We're very blessed to have her as a member of our community."
District assistant superintendent Patricia Kardambikis said Ms. Podgurski has taught the program in various forms throughout the district and other Washington and Greene county schools for more than 20 years. She said the curriculum was approved in November after an informational meeting for parents. The program is taught to boys and girls separately, she said, and the page containing the objectionable websites was removed from the books.
The curriculum is being modified this summer as part of a planned overhaul of health classes, and parent input will be accepted at that time, she said.
"We will continue to update and refine the curriculum," said acting superintendent Joseph Dimperio. "We understand the sensitivity of the material for some families."
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.