Sex education advocates and opponents squared off Monday night in a heated debate over whether Planned Parenthood, AIDS Care and the county Public Health Department should be excluded from teacher-training sessions.
About 200 people, appearing evenly divided between those who favored the proposal and those against it, jammed the chambers of the Ventura County Board of Education.
So many people wanted to speak that board members voted to extend the session passed its regular 9 p.m. adjournment time. The board was still hearing public comment on the matter late Monday night.
Russ Hauth of Thousand Oaks said he supported board President Wendy Larner's proposal to suspend use of the groups to give the board time to review what speakers say and what materials they use at sex education workshops sponsored by the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Office.
"It is my opinion that . . . Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care are not neutral," Hauth said. "They vocally support an agenda that is not traditional pro-family values."
Hauth was supported by several other speakers who urged the board to ban the groups.
But sex education advocates also had many supporters at the meeting, including Nisan Cerami, a 23-year-old Thousand Oaks college student who ditched a mid-term to attend Monday night's meeting.
Cerami said she felt compelled to express to the board her strong beliefs in the need for sex education and for information about how to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.
"If parents could choose, they'd choose abstinence for their children," Cerami said. "But it's not their choice."
Monday's meeting was the second in two months in which the county board had considered the proposal, put forth by Larner.
Initially, Larner proposed banning Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care, contending that they have failed to stress abstinence-only programs and often give teachers more information about ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases than is required by law.
The board postponed a decision in February after speakers urged it to reconsider.
Two weeks ago, Larner asked to put the item back on the agenda, and this time include the county Public Health Department to the list of groups to be suspended.
Since then, at least 15 people supporting the ban have written letters stating their position to the board.
Before the meeting, activists from Unity Pride Coalition held a demonstration outside of the Superintendent of Schools Office on Verdugo Way in Camarillo.
The demonstrators noisily protested Larner's proposal, condemning it as a fear-based response to the problems of teen-age pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
They carried signs that read "Ignorance Spreads AIDS," and "Listen to the students. Listen to the experts. Reject Larner."
In a press release put out before Monday night's meeting, county Public Health Officer Gary Feldman called the proposal a "dangerous measure" and urged the board to reject it. It is important to teach children who may disregard abstinence how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy and how to minimize the risk of disease, Feldman said.
"When we condemn a child to death through ignorance--that is the crime," Feldman wrote.
Speakers from Planned Parenthood and AIDS Care also urged the board to kill the proposal. Scott McCann, director of education for Planned Parenthood's regional office in Santa Barbara, said the group's educators always stress that abstinence is the only sure way to prevent pregnancy or disease.
But it is not realistic to expect that all teen-agers will wait until marriage to become sexually active, McCann said. That is why teachers need information about other birth control methods, he said.
Doug Green, executive director of AIDS Care, said he is angry about what he calls a smear campaign against his organization. Green took a conciliatory tone toward the board in February, when he assured it that future speakers would be trained to talk to students.
"Tonight I am angry because your proposal maligns the effort and impugns the dignity of the local heroes who stand up and tell their stories so they can save lives," Green told board members.
County school's chief Charles Weis has said that his office is investigating whether the board has the power to censure speakers.
He said he will work with educators in Ventura County's 21 school districts to make sure they receive the information they want and need to offer a comprehensive sex education curriculum.