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Sex scandal taking civility out of civics

September 19, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Smithsburg High School government teacher Ed Gift is finding it difficult to discuss current events in his classes lately.

It's become a challenge for Gift and other teachers to discuss President Clinton's possible impeachment without getting into the lurid details of his sex scandal.

"You have to handle it with kid gloves and very delicately," said Gift, chairman of the school's social studies department.

Explaining President Clinton's sex life is "hardly our mission," believes Boonsboro High School Principal Helen Becker.

"I rather suspect that it's not the thing that will be discussed. It's just too values-laden and sensitive," she said.

The details in Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report are not accessible from school computers connected to the Internet because of blocking software, said Ed Koogle, social studies supervisor for the Washington County Board of Education.

But many social studies teachers feel obligated to use the crisis to illustrate how government works, Koogle said.

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"It's a beautiful, teachable moment. Probably a lot of people on the street are learning," he said.

Class discussions have centered around what will happen to the government if the U.S. House of Representatives impeaches Clinton on one or more of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's 11 alleged offenses.

"Teachers are using good judgment. They are certainly not getting into all the smut," he said.

They are explaining that impeachment is a fancy word for indictment. If Clinton is impeached, the U.S. Senate would act as Clinton's judge and jury.

The biggest misconception people have is that impeachment leads to removal, Gift said.

President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 but the Senate fell one vote short of convicting him.

Gift is taking an informal poll among his ninth-grade government students to find out whether they believe Clinton could resign, be impeached and removed, punished in some other way or not punished at all.

North High Principal Dave Reeder said most students know details about the sex charges.

"Students can pick that up anywhere. We just don't want to sensationalize it here at school," Reeder said.

Despite the racy subject matter, students and teachers have kept the conversations clean and joke-free, school officials said.

"I do believe the students are fairly sensitive. They're handling it maturely," Gift said.

Still, some students are having trouble sorting out the very complex issues, Gift said.

"With very young students, especially, they look at things in black and white," he said.

Outside government classes, there has been little discussion about Clinton, said Boyd Michael, director of secondary education at the Washington County Board of Education

"It's not a main topic. It's not a distraction. It's kind of an embarrassing situation in some ways that we can't talk about what's happening with our president," he said.

Becker said students sometimes bring unsettling issues to school because they have nowhere else to bring them, but that isn't happening with Clinton.

In Washington County elementary schools, the topic simply hasn't come up, said Director of Elementary Education John Festerman.

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