Omaha Public Schools’ effort to revise sex education standards for the first time in 30 years has revealed deep divides over what young people should learn about issues ranging from sexual orientation to gender identity and contraception.
“Your decision is not political. It’s not educational. You have a moral decision to make. … I hope you are working from a Bible that is worn out,” said Kathryn Russell, who described herself as a mother, grandmother, Catholic and former Omaha Public Schools employee.
“But the curriculum you have, the standards you have, gives too much information,” Russell said, according to the school system’s video of the meeting posted online. “It rapes children of their innocence. Information is important, but this gives too much information.”
Her comments were met with raucous applause, but there were plenty in the packed auditorium who disagreed.
“Comprehensive sexual education is important for every single one of my peers. It is important to have all of the information in order to make an educated decision regarding my body and how to take care of it,” said Ryleigh Welsh, a sophomore at Omaha’s Central High. “I have a right to this information.”
Sex ed has long been a sensitive subject for schools and a battlefield for advocates of different approaches to teaching about bodies and relationships. Now schools around the country must wrestle with how best to educate young people about sex at a time of rapid social change — particularly regarding LGBT issues — and heightened awareness of the problem of sexual violence.
Students nationwide say that this is an area in which schools have room to grow: Most of those who had sex ed in middle school or high school said they received medically accurate information, according to a 2015 poll. But four in 10 say that their sex education was “not helpful” in navigating real-life decisions about sex and relationships.
Omaha’s Human Growth and Development courses begin with a short series of lessons about puberty in the fourth grade, according to information posted on the school system’s website. Seventh- and eighth-grade students each get nine weeks of instruction, and high school students take a one-semester course in 10th grade. The courses are not required; parents have the right to opt their children out.
The school system proposed a number of changes last year, including new lessons on social media and bullying and sexual harassment. Among the more controversial proposals were those that would introduce lessons about LGBT issues, gender identity, emergency contraception and abortion.
Under that original proposal, middle-school students would learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, including that “All individuals are worthy and should be treated with dignity and respect,” according to standards that were proposed in October and are posted on the school system’s website. High school students would learn that “gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither.”
The school system would continue to teach that abstinence is the best way to prevent pregnancy and remain free of sexually transmitted diseases. But 10th-graders would learn that a woman who has unprotected sex can take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy. They’d also learn that a person who becomes pregnant accidentally faces one of three options: having and parenting the baby, giving the baby up for adoption, or ending the pregnancy with an abortion.
A public forum on those proposals drew more than a thousand people in October, many of them angry about changes that they said would hurt Omaha’s children. School officials told local television station KETV that they were surprised by the huge turnout. They said many of those raising their voices were not parents of students in the schools and alluded to a parent survey earlier in the year had showed solid support for most changes.
“It certainly was very different than what our parent groups had said earlier,” Assistant Superintendent ReNae Kehrberg told KETV.
Among the outside groups rallying against the changes is Nebraskans for Founders’ Values, which launched a website — “Save Nebraska’s Children” — to fight the sex ed program, claiming it would be “full of pornographic content promoting homosexual lifestyles, masturbation, and sexually graphic images.”
Asked about that statement, a school system spokeswoman pointed to an FAQ about the new standards posted online. That document assures parents that schools will “absolutely not” be showing pornography, nor will schools give out condoms or take students to get abortions.
The outcry seems to have had an effect, however: According to school officials, the proposal now under consideration leaves out lessons on emergency contraception and abortion.
That concession didn’t mollify speakers at the meeting on Monday. Gwen Easter, of Omaha, said teaching about sexuality in order to help kids make healthy choices is akin to giving them a beer in order to teach them not to drink.
“Are you going to give them a bottle of alcohol to help with alcoholism? No, you’re not going to do that,” Easter said. “Y’all need to stop with all this hidden agenda stuff.”
Sasha Forsen disagreed: “We can debate morality all day long, but I think it’s really important to provide facts,” she said. “I believe it’s our responsibility to give our children the tools that they need to make informed decisions in this changing world that we live in.”
The board of education is expected to vote on whether to adopt the new standards on Jan. 20.