OPS board nears vote on sex ed update

OPS board members Yolanda Williams, left, and Lou Ann Goding and OPS Superintendent Mark Evans listen to a woman speak in support of the proposed sex education standards during Monday's long board meeting.

After another marathon public comment period Monday night, several Omaha Public Schools board members say it's time to bite the bullet and vote on new health and sex education standards.

The board is scheduled to hold a workshop Monday to dive deep into staff recommendations and research, and is expected to vote yes or no on proposed content standards on Jan. 20.

The public has had plenty of opportunity to weigh in, and now board members have to make their decision, school board member Matt Scanlan said Tuesday.

"I'd like to hold firm to voting on the Jan. 20 meeting," he said. "I think both sides are very passionate, and they'll talk until they're blue in the face. We've got to stick to this timeframe."

Several board members said that after being blitzed with emails, phone calls and public comments from constituents and community members, they're ready to hear OPS staff members explain their recommendations for the health and sex education standards and hash out as a board what does and doesn't belong in a reworked curriculum.

Board member Katie Underwood wants to hear more about how teachers would be trained to handle sensitive material and which curriculum OPS staff are considering.

"I have a list of questions, and I'm sure other board members do, too," she said.

OPS is eyeing a potential update of its human growth and development standards and curriculum for the first time in 30 years. The curriculum covers health, nutrition, drug and alcohol prevention and self-esteem, but also delves into puberty, relationships and reproductive health.

While OPS already teaches what's called comprehensive sex education — a blend of abstinence and information on topics such as birth control, sexually transmitted disease prevention and teen pregnancy — the board is considering the inclusion of new topics including abortion, gender identity and sexual orientation that have divided parents and community members.

Monday night's meeting drew another large crowd and a lengthy public comment session focused on sex education. Board members listened to but did not discuss a presentation on the standards and results from a community survey.

Scanlan left the meeting early, saying Tuesday that he was "extremely frustrated" after voting against extending the board's typical hourlong comment session. The board voted 6-2 to continue public comment, allowing roughly 40 speakers to talk over a three-hour period.

"I think we've heard both sides for three or four board meetings, and nobody's said anything new," he said. "I was disappointed that the board allowed for the public comment. They again let a group of people take over a meeting."

Board member Yolanda Williams, who voted against extending the comment session, also stepped out for a portion of the meeting. Much of the discussion over the sex education update has become polarized and unproductive, she said.

"We had the same speakers come back and say the same thing," she said. "It took away from conversations we should have been having at the board table about the standards. At some point, when do you say, 'Enough is enough?' "

Board member Lacey Merica also stepped out for part of the meeting, but she said she wasn't protesting the public comment extension — she felt ill and wanted to lie down.

"When we started this almost two years ago, we said the whole purpose is we wanted community feedback, we wanted community input, and we'd take that feedback and let it guide our decision-making," Merica said.

The empty seats at the board table didn't go unnoticed.

"Thank you to those of you who are here listening to us," said Maris Bentley, who spoke against the sex education update. "I want you to know that we the people are actually paying attention to those elected officials who are not here, who apparently don't care enough to sit here and listen to the testimony of those of us who came to let our voices be heard."

Three board members — Marian Fey, Marque Snow and Tony Vargas — said they support the initially proposed new standards, which include abortion, emergency contraception and discussion of tolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"The more we continue to debate this, the more the possibility that this gets watered down," Snow said.

Staff members recommended Monday that the board drop abortion and emergency contraception from the standards.

"I don't think 'Leave something out because it's distasteful to some people' is sound educational policy," Fey said.

"My constituents are very engaged in this," she continued. "My emails, phone calls and comments haven't stopped. They're 10-1 in support of those original standards. That hasn't shifted one iota."

Several board members said they're still wrestling with how they might vote.

"It's obviously not a decision we're taking lightly," Merica said. "As one of the Catholic board members, personally I'm pro-life. I don't believe in abortion. But it is legal in our country, it exists and it's a fact. If it does end up being included, I hope parents and families could use that as a discussion point with their student."

She said it was likely that at least some of the standards would be updated for the 21st century.

"Our world has changed so much even in the 15 years since I graduated high school," Merica said. "We didn't have sexting, we didn't have the Internet like we do know. We didn't know about sex trafficking. These are things kids need to know."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1210, erin.duffy@owh.com

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