It was a novel class exercise: Ask a room full of Montgomery County high school students to take turns chewing the same piece of gum.
To demonstrate how sexually transmitted diseases are spread, a visiting speaker invited students to share gum in health classes at four county high schools in December and last month. School officials said a total of about 100 students participated in the lessons, although some declined to chew the gum.
Education and health officials say the gum exercise was unsanitary and should not have happened. The speaker and the clinic, a pregnancy counseling center with a religious orientation, are no longer welcome in Montgomery schools, school officials said.
"It was fine for me, because my best friend and me did it first," said Julia Bellefleur, 15, a Damascus High School sophomore who participated in the exercise. "But it was kind of gross for everyone else. I was just glad I did it first."
At Damascus, about 15 students shared a stick of gum, students said.
Julia said the speaker also asked for volunteers to sample squares of chocolate, one of which, they were told, was actually a laxative. The point was to illustrate the uncertainty of knowing whether one has contracted an STD after a sexual encounter. Four boys volunteered, she said.
School officials said no actual laxatives were dispensed.
Complaint sparks review
Administrators and school board members learned of the demonstration early last month, after a parent complained to the principal of Poolesville High School, and swiftly revoked the group's permission to speak in schools. One or more speakers from Rockville Pregnancy Center had visited Damascus, Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill high schools and possibly others. Clinic speakers had been approved to visit schools since 1998; students said the speaker told them she had taught the same lessons many times.
School officials said no complaints had previously reached a principal or school board members.
"This basically is an unacceptable and unsanitary practice. It should never occur," said Judith Covich, director of school health services at the county health department. "The risk is about the same as sharing a glass, sharing the same straw." The practice carried a low risk of spreading the cold or flu, she said.
Officials of the Rockville nonprofit group could not be reached yesterday for comment. On its Web site, http://www.rcpc.org/index.html, Rockville Pregnancy Center describes itself as a nonprofit, licensed medical clinic and pregnancy counseling organization. One part of the site quotes extensively from the Bible and offers a test "to see if you're going to Heaven."
School officials sent letters last month to all students exposed to the lesson and encouraged parents to call the health department with any concerns.
Sylvia Bellefleur, mother of Julia, said her main reaction upon reading the letter was disbelief that her daughter and her classmates went along.
"I was surprised that she would do it," the elder Bellefleur said. "Nobody could pay me enough to do it."
'Gum game' deemed 'repulsive'
In a Jan. 12 memo to school board members, Deputy Superintendent Frieda K. Lacey said she would order "an immediate review of all outside speakers" for lessons on human sexuality and disease prevention, two of the most contentious topics taught in the county schools. She termed the gum exercise "repulsive" and said the employees who approved the group to speak in schools this academic year are "no longer employed" by the school system. "Every effort will be taken to prevent this from happening again," Lacey wrote.
Students said the speaker put them at ease about the "gum game," as it is now known among school administrators: It seemed relevant enough to the lessons, and the presenter said many students had done it. Classroom teachers were present during most or all of the lessons. Brian Edwards, schools spokesman, said he could not say whether those teachers were disciplined; such procedures are confidential.
"At first, they just asked for a volunteer to chew a piece of gum for five seconds," said Tim Perez, 15, a Damascus sophomore. "They asked, 'Is anyone willing to come up here and chew this piece of gum that has just been chewed on for five seconds?' At first, people were really hesitant to do it, and then more people started to do it. . . . I think she said the record was 18."
Tim said he volunteered, along with three male classmates, to try the chocolates that might or might not have been laxatives. He did not chew the gum.
"I just thought it wasn't very, like, clean," he said.