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Schools Struggle To Discuss Scandal

January 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Allegations of a presidential affair and cover-up are creating an R-rated challenge for middle-school teachers trying to keep their students up on current events.

After all, sex is difficult enough to bring into the classroom. A living president and partisan politics make it even dicier. Teachers say they’re urging respect for the presidency amid questions about President Clinton’s character.

``I tell the kids, ’You may not like the man, but you’ve got to respect the office,‴ said Steve Stutsman, an eighth-grade teacher at West Side Middle School in Elkhart, Ind.

Like other teachers, he tries to keep the focus on the legal difficulties that Clinton could face. Someone else should handle the intricacies of what kind of relationship Clinton may have had.

``I tell them to talk to their parents,″ he said. ``That’s basically what I tell them about sexual preference or sexual relations and go from there.″

Carol Huckaby, an eighth-grade teacher at Cartersville Middle School in Cartersville, Ga., says the issue in her classroom is Clinton’s honesty. ``But I also talked with them in a very positive manner about him. Until he’s no longer our president, they should remain respectful,″ she said.

And when it comes to the first marriage, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vigorous defense of her husband also has an impact on students. One child asked, ``If she’s not mad, why should we be mad?″ said Huckaby. ``That’s the attitude sixth-graders have.″

Ms. Huckaby also said she doesn’t go into detail about the sexual aspects, thought she makes general references to allegations of a ``girlfriend″ and an ``affair.″ -- phrases, she said, the student know about.

Schools in Clinton’s home state of Arkansas were being especially careful.

An eighth-grade class at Woodland Junior High in Fayetteville read newspaper accounts, but the teacher held no discussion. The teacher ``just wants (students) to be aware of what’s going on. We don’t want to put our spin on it at all,″ said principal Evelyn Marbury.

Merrell Walker, a ninth-grade teacher at Ahlf Junior High School in Searcy, Ark., said there’s a strong message not to judge too quickly.

``When any current issue is discussed in the classroom, we remind students that a person should carefully weigh all the facts and information available before forming an opinion,″ she said in a statement that had to be cleared by her supervisors. ``We also remind students that the media information may or may not be accurate when it is reported.″

In Little Rock, the ``sexual nature of the issue″ means ``parents are typically dealing with students rather than us discussing it in the classroom,″ said schools spokesperson Suellen Vann.

But it’s not really clear how interested 12-, 13- and 14- year-olds are. Some teachers report that children just aren’t that interested, but some parents have a different perspective.

In Waukegan, Ill., Pat Hagerbaumer said her two children _ 13-year-old twins John and Diana _ have for some time had shown an interest in the president and the latest turmoil ``is definitely a big deal.″

John said his social studies class just happened to be taking up impeachment. He and his friends ``talk about it three or four times during the day″ and he thinks Clinton did something wrong.

Alicia Williams and fellow eighth-graders at Carver Middle School in Century, Fla., say they worry about the impact on Mrs. Clinton and daughter Chelsea and the image children have of Clinton.

He couldn’t have done all those bad things, she said. ``He has better things to do and people to help that depend on him.″

``My fear is that this will damage our kids’ image of a president who has sort of a hero’s status among young people,″ said Kathy Medders, of Raleigh, N.C., a PTA member and mother of Stephen, 12, Morgan, 11, and Caroline, 7.

Lorraine Morrell, PTA member and parent of 12-year-old Jason at Magruder Middle School in Torrance, Calif., said he and friends are put off by the story.

``They seem to think it’s very silly that the only thing the press wants to talk about is who slept with who ... when that’s really not what’s important,″ she said.

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