The Omaha Public Schools board voted Wednesday night to adopt a new set of health and sex education standards, making the first updates in 30 years and exposing deep divides in the Omaha community.
Members said the new standards would help prepare kids to make healthy decisions when it comes to sex, dating and social media.
The new standards address topics including abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity for the first time in the human growth and development curriculum.
Board members cited their faith, life experiences and desire to provide accurate and reliable information to kids who might otherwise turn to their friends or Google for answers about their changing bodies or pregnancy prevention.
“I have no agenda other than what’s best for 52,000 students,” said board Vice President Yolanda Williams. “Whether or not I’m re-elected doesn’t matter to me.
“Some of this goes against my own beliefs, but sometimes we have to take a step out and look at what’s best for all.”
Board members voted unanimously to adopt the new standards for elementary and middle schoolers.
Board member Justin Wayne was the lone dissenting voice on standards for 10th-graders, who take a semester-long course that covers a wide variety of health and sex-related topics, from abstinence to alcohol and drug abuse. Wayne said that he was wrestling with his vote and that it came down to the update process.
The vote came after months of debate over what health and sex education should cover.
Board member Marian Fey said: “I really want to thank this board, because you were brave enough to take this on, and you deserve a lot of credit for that. You’ve gotten the emails, the letters to your home, the voicemails, the people stopping you in the grocery store. But you did it.”
Since fall, board meetings have often included fiery public comment sessions during which parents and community members invoked everything from Bible verses to STD rates in their arguments for and against an updated curriculum.
Roughly 350 people once again packed the room Wednesday night. More than 30 people signed up to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, though the board cut off comments after one hour.
OPS introduced human growth and development classes in 1986, and the curriculum hasn’t faced a major overhaul since. Curriculum for core subjects such as math and science are typically updated every seven years.
“These are challenging conversations, and certainly you see that with some of the activity that’s taken place,” Superintendent Mark Evans said last week. “And by the way, this is probably why it’s been 30 years since this has been talked about.”
Among the more controversial updates approved by the board:
» Discussion of gender roles and stereotypes starting in sixth grade.
» A lesson on sexual orientation and gender identity beginning in seventh grade.
» Inclusion of abortion and emergency contraception in 10th-grade lessons on birth control.
Until now, those topics had been purposely excluded from the curriculum, and students who asked questions about them would be referred to a school counselor.
Board members made small tweaks Wednesday night, including a back-and-forth discussion on the definition of consent.
But many of the standards remain unchanged from the ones proposed in October. Some legal definitions, statutes and consequences were added regarding Nebraska laws on drugs and alcohol, age of consent, sexual abuse and abortion.
Board members and supporters of the update have said that in a changing world dominated by social media and no shortage of online options for information on sex, schools should be the first line of defense in the battle against misinformation.
“I’ve taken care of kids who were bullied due to sexual preferences, treated kids with STDs and helped kids tell their parents they were pregnant,” said Amy Lacroix, a pediatrician and sex education supporter who has a child at Central High. “It’s time for Omaha to catch up.
“It’s time to give our children the best tools.”
Equipping middle and high schoolers with facts on pregnancy and disease prevention also could help combat Douglas County’s notoriously high STD rates, advocates said. And it’s time for health classes to touch on LGBT issues.
“We have a responsibility to teach our students about the world around them,” board member Lacey Merica said, including topics such as social media, consent and healthy relationships. “And our LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) students need to know they’re a loved, welcomed part of this society.”
Evans reminded audience members again that parents always have the choice to opt their children out of classes.
But not all parents and community members were convinced that more information is the key to healthier, happier kids.
Opponents have worried that lessons would downplay the importance of abstinence and encourage sexual experimentation among curious teens.
Amelia Den Hartog, a counselor who said she spoke for some of Omaha’s Latino community, called the proposed standards “an all-you-can-eat sex buffet.”
“Everything is, ‘Oh, just use a condom and you will be protected,’ ” she said. “Condoms don’t protect hearts and minds.”
Others objected to hot-button topics like abortion and gender identity, accusing OPS of wading into moral and political issues best hashed out at home. Several speakers called for OPS to delay the vote on new standards until parents could review a final curriculum and all materials that would be used in the classroom.
“These folks are here because they think you’ve gone too far with these revisions,” Nebraska State Board of Education member Pat McPherson said. “They represent different races, religions, different generations, different political parties and come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and I think you should listen to them.”
Wednesday’s vote cleared the first hurdle for the new curriculum; OPS officials will now start reviewing and piloting different plans. Teachers may write portions of the curriculum, too.
The board will vote again this spring on which curriculum and materials — videos, textbooks and other items — to purchase.
The goal is to implement the new lessons in the fall.
Officials also outlined a communication plan to help inform families about the new standards and curriculum.
Permission slips sent home so parents can opt their kids in or out of human growth and development classes will contain information on what topics will be covered in which grades. It also will include instructions for how parents can review curriculum materials themselves.
The district will post the curriculum online when copyright allows, and parents also will have the option to review it in-person at their child’s school.