In the first face-off between Ventura County's new, conservative Board of Education and advocates for sexual education, the board backed down Monday from a proposal to restrict certain groups from speaking at teacher-training sessions.
A dozen speakers assailed Board President Wendy Larner's plan to regulate who will speak to educational forums and what they can say about sex education and AIDS awareness.
She did not mention any groups specifically Monday, but in the past has singled out Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care, a local advocacy group. But after the hearing, Larner agreed with board member John McGarry's suggestion to survey other counties to see what regulations they impose on speakers.
But Larner, elected with the backing of conservative Christians, made clear she will pursue her proposal to create regulations limiting the use of outside speakers for workshops. "It is not (an issue) that I can in good conscience just let die," she said.
Speakers from the two local groups argued that their expertise is essential to provide instructors with a wide range of options for teaching sex education and AIDS awareness.
In particular, teachers must be trained in how to present lessons on AIDS awareness and prevention, as that curriculum is state-mandated, said Scott McCann, director of the regional Planned Parenthood office.
"Most teacher credentials don't provide much training, if any, on human sexuality education," he said.
If Larner is successful in barring certain speakers from workshops, she will be entering uncharted territory, educators said before Monday's meeting.
The county Superintendent of Schools Office has for years sponsored training workshops in school districts throughout Ventura County on a variety of topics, said schools Supt. Charles Weis.
But this is the first time that a county school board trustee has moved to restrict access to those workshops by selected groups, Weis said. He declined to make a recommendation on Larner's request because it is so unusual, Weis said.
But he agreed to look into the situation in other counties and come back to the board next month. But Weis seemed unconvinced that any change was needed. "I would suggest we don't have a major problem that needs a major change," he said to applause from the audience.
"Obviously we disagree, Dr. Weis," Larner retorted.
Larner's request has been interpreted by some as an effort to remove speakers who do not espouse the conservative ideals held by a majority of the school board.
Three of the five board trustees--Larner, Angela N. Miller and Marty Bates--were elected after receiving support from conservative Christian groups.
"I think what the religious coalition would like to do is pigeonhole Planned Parenthood as a group that does not use abstinence in its curriculum," said Terri Thorfinnson, director of public relations for Planned Parenthood. "But we do stress abstinence when talking about personal responsibility.'
In the past, Larner has said she is seeking only to precisely implement the mandates of a state law requiring lessons in AIDS prevention for public school students in grades seven through 12.
HIV/AIDS workshops in the past have focused too much on homosexuals giving testimony about their lives, behavior and concerns, Larner has said.
"There is no component in the law that requires that," Larner said. "The only one is to teach compassion for people who are sick. And that doesn't have to be a homosexual."
Board members Larner and Bates have also expressed concern about the graphic nature of a speech given by an HIV-infected young man at a county-sponsored HIV/AIDS workshop held in December.
Doug Green, director of AIDS Care, the Ventura-based organization that recommended the young man for the forum, said Monday that he agreed the speaker's comments were out of line.
AIDS Care has instituted a new policy requiring every speaker to receive training before they can address any group, Green said.