OPINION: Comprehensive sex ed could be a saving grace. Does it stand a chance?


Molly Ashford

The Board of Education listened for hours to public commentary regarding their revised standards last Friday. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Department of Education

On Aug. 6, hundreds of people gathered at a State Board of Education meeting in Lincoln to share their thoughts on comprehensive sex education after a second iteration of health standards was released late last month.

In hours of impassioned testimony by religious extremists, QAnon supporters and people over 70, the opposition to the standards managed to display, once again, why living in Nebraska as a young person is a grossly depressing reality. Never have I witnessed such homophobia on blatant display.

In nearly all respects, the opponents of comprehensive sex ed have won the battle. The revised standards are an affront to what they were supposed to be. Youth voices have been ignored and laughed at while the deranged ramblings of religious zealots and the elderly are applauded and endorsed by state leadership.

It appeared to me, though, that very few opponents had any idea what they were arguing against, besides some idea of a ‘gay agenda’ that simply does not exist. This compelled me to take a look through both drafts to get a sense of where the outrage originated, and more importantly, why it remains such an issue after the Board stripped the standards of nearly all ‘controversial’ material.

What is the difference between the first and second drafts?

The first draft of proposed health standards debuted in March of 2021. The standards are broken down into eight content areas: foundations of personal health; nutrition and physical activity promotion; substance abuse prevention; disease prevention; injury prevention and safety; social, emotional and mental health; human growth and development; and consumer and environmental health.

Opponents mainly took issue with content in the human growth and development and mental health portions. In early schooling years, students would be taught medically accurate names for their body parts, the definition of consent and the difference between safe and unsafe touch. They would discuss emotional regulation and how to be a good friend.

Sandwiched between hundreds of evidence-based standards is one singular sentence that, in my opinion, led to the derailment of the entire first draft. Beginning in first grade, gender, gender identity and gender role stereotypes would be defined and discussed in class.

Topics related to gender identity and sexual orientation would resume discussion in third grade and continue throughout high school. The mental health portion prioritizes open-mindedness and anti-discrimination, exploring stereotyping and racial bias from third grade onward.

It became clear fairly quickly that the first draft would not advance. By late July, the Board released the second and current version of the health standards currently under debate.

What I fail to understand is why the revised standards remain controversial, considering how diluted they became after the revision. Despite the World-Herald’s reporting that gender identity is included twice in the new standards, it is only referenced in the standards themselves once—this time, beginning in seventh grade. Gender roles would be discussed beginning in the fifth grade. The topic of sexual orientation is relegated to a glossary page, mentioned only in passing under the definition of harassment.

The Board, under enormous pressure, removed the word ‘sexuality’ from the entire second draft. A key goal of the health standards—students learning characteristics “relating to identity, sexuality and healthy relationships”—was rephrased to focus solely on relationships.

In addition, the first draft had three references to discrimination and prejudice, two anecdotes about respecting people of other races and ethnicities and one use of the term ‘systemic racism.’ All have been scrubbed from the updated standards.

“Recognize that biological sex and gender identity may or may not differ,” standard HE.7.7.2.d. in the second draft states. This singular reference to gender identity appears to be the main point of contention.

What remains in the second draft?

Despite a near-complete whitewashing, some valuable ideas remain in the second iteration. The difference between safe and unsafe touch is emphasized throughout the years, and young children are encouraged to identify safe adults that they can approach with concerns about inappropriate behavior.

Kids learn about food groups and exercise, drug abuse and addiction and how to prevent injuries on the playground. They are taught to intervene in bullying or teasing that they witness, and they begin to discuss mental illnesses as they mature. From Kindergarten to high school, they are encouraged to use medically accurate names to describe their body parts.

What I found most interesting (and frankly non-controversial) is the consumer and environmental safety curriculum items for high schoolers. In the first high school health class, students would be taught how to make doctor’s appointments for themselves and learn about health insurance and HIPPA. In the second, they would discuss organ donation. Older youth would be made aware of community resources for survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence and Nebraska’s laws surrounding child pornography and age of consent. There would be discussion of how social media impacts mental health outcomes.

To me, none of these items seem particularly worth opposing—even for hardcore conservative parents who are so against the “indoctrination” of their children.

Who are the opponents?

The short answer is bigoted old people (to make a generalization, though it is one that I feel confident in making considering hours of testimony at multiple meetings). The long answer is a lot more sinister.

Pushback against the first draft was quick and powerful. The ever-charming Gov. Pete Ricketts immediately called on the Board to “scrap the standards” on the basis that they “inject non-scientific, political ideas” into the curriculum and were drafted “without the input of key mainstream organizations” (in my opinion, these ‘mainstream’ organizations he mentions refer to anti-LGBT, hyper-conservative think tanks such as the Nebraska Family Alliance).

One prominent opposing group is Nebraskans for Founder’s Values (NFFV), an extremely conservative Christian group which made headlines when they debuted a poster with a quote from none other than Adolf Hitler at the York County Fair. They are responsible for the red bandanas that adorned the necks of many speakers, and they held workshops throughout July to prepare speakers to testify.

Notably, by late July, 47 school boards across the state had objected to the proposed standards. But for the most part, it wasn’t educators who showed up to the Board meetings to voice their objection. It was parents of children long past school age, grandparents and self-proclaimed “concerned citizens.” Time after time, people with red bandanas and poorly disguised prejudice stood to deliver their testimonies.

“The LGBTQ, X, Y, Z, whatever, community, is less than two percent of the entire population,” a woman from Lincoln said, unabashedly homophobic. “Unfortunately, they are loud and proud, and have a voice because of the news media.”

“Karl Marx was a parasite on his grandfather’s capitalist business,” an elderly gentleman said, causing me to wonder if he knew what meeting he was at. “He was the worst example of humanity.”

A man named Sam Schlegal asked how many times an insurrection needs to happen for people to understand. Another woman growled through her teeth as she demanded that schools teach obedience and allegiance to the flag. It was abundantly clear that few of the opponents had taken the time to read the second draft and were instead more concerned about bringing religion back to public school education and spreading conspiracy theories about CSE and its implications.

What now?

‘Scrap the standards’ has become something of a battle cry for anti-CSE activists—and at the end of the day, that is the goal: for the Board to drop the discussion altogether and for the standards, even the diluted second version, to never see the light of day. Instead of having their children ‘indoctrinated’ at school with medically accurate, inclusive information, they would rather indoctrinate them from home with their own values.

The Board plans to make a decision on how to proceed by the Fall, and there will be further opportunities for public comment. My public comment is the following:

There is no requirement that schools adopt state health standards, even if they were to be approved by the Board. Parents can opt their children out of sex education. They can teach them how to hate from home. They can send them to private school. There are so many options.

For LGBTQ+ youth with no support system, they have no options. If their families are even half as despicable as some who spoke at the meeting, my heart hurts for them. If school is the only place where they can learn that they shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves, then we must give children that opportunity.

The first draft of standards is not without critique—even I, as a progressive lesbian who has worked in sexual health research for years, would wait to discuss some topics until the later years. But the second draft is about erasing the identities of people. It is about responding with complacency to hatred. Students should not have to beg you to listen to their voices.