LINCOLN — Janine Brignola grew up in a rural area near Ord, Neb., but graduated from high school in Lincoln.
Not once, said the 30-year-old who is HIV-positive, was she warned of the dangers of the virus that causes AIDS at the schools she attended.
Her peers, Brignola said, told her it was a “dirty disease” that could kill her, but she believed that only the sexually promiscuous or “junkies or prostitutes got HIV.”
“I was naive and thought Nebraska was not a place that it could happen,” she said.
Brignola was among those testifying Tuesday in favor of a bill in the Nebraska Legislature to require public schools to provide more comprehensive education about sex and sexually transmitted diseases.
Legislative Bill 619 was introduced by State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm.
Haar said 2,300 Nebraskans age 19 and younger contracted sexually transmitted infections in 2011. He also noted that the birthrate for African-American and Hispanic teens in Nebraska is among the highest in the country.
His bill would provide knowledge to attack those problems, Haar said.
Right now, Nebraska requires general health education classes but allows individual school districts to decide how far to go with sex education — from little mention of the subject to abstinence-only instruction to information about the use of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.
A public hearing on the bill before the Education Committee stretched into the evening as those for and against debated whether parents or teachers were the best source of sex education, and whether such decisions should be left to local school boards and not mandated by the state.
“Nebraskans want local school boards to be in the driver's seat,” said Karen Bowling of the Nebraska Family Council and Nebraska Family First.
She testified in opposition, telling senators the measure would undermine parental authority by dictating what their children should hear — not only about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies but also about unwanted sexual advances and avoiding bias against others on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identification.
“It goes beyond what parents want their children to learn,” Bowling said of the bill.
Proponents called on lawmakers to use their power to ensure that students in all Nebraska schools get a comprehensive class in sex education. They said much of the information that teens get now is inaccurate.
“It's a lot more than teaching about body parts,” said Janet Tucker, a recently retired Lincoln East High School health teacher.
The Omaha Public Schools district requires students to take courses in human growth and development beginning in eighth grade. Abstinence and contraception are among the topics. Parents can opt their children out of the courses, as would be permitted under LB 619.
The Lincoln school district requires nine weeks of instruction on health in high schools, including two weeks on sex education.
Tucker said that in 39 years of teaching, she could count only a handful of parents who opted their children out of the class.
The committee took no action on LB 619. It is doubtful the bill will be debated by the full Legislature this year because no lawmaker chose it as a priority bill.
The issue, however, could be raised again if supporters take the idea to the State Board of Education, which sets policies for the state's K-12 schools.
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