Teaching schoolkids about gender identity and sexual orientation will stem bullying, prevent suicides and make schools a welcoming place for all students regardless of their gender identity or nontraditional family structure, according to backers of proposed health education standards for Nebraska schools.
Opponents say the draft standards released this month amount to political advocacy that will sexualize young children and rob them of their innocence, and that the standards don’t reflect the values of most Nebraska parents.
Much of the debate on the draft standards is expected to center on whether it’s appropriate to introduce such material to young children, whether there is a scientific basis for the standards and whether the individuals who wrote and contributed to the standards reflected a cross-section of Nebraskans.
The draft standards are “life saving,” said Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of OutNebraska, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and empowers Nebraskans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. One of the group’s missions is to protect LGBTQ+ youth and create safe spaces for them.
The group was one of the organizations asked to provide input on the standards.
“I think the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity expression is something that’s been missing,” Swatsworth said.
Swatsworth said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows that 17% of high school students have seriously considered suicide, and 60% of those students identified as lesbian, gay and bisexual.
“That’s unacceptable,” she said. “Our schools need to be safe places. Families can teach values, and schools can teach facts.”
“It’s controversial to not talk about this,” said Lisa Schulze, education and training manager for the Women’s Fund of Omaha who was tapped for input on the standards. A former educator for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Schulze has a master’s degree of education in human sexuality from Widener University and is a certified sexuality educator through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
She said the standards are not only inclusive, but also address other issues like prevention of sexual and domestic violence.
“Our young people need this information to plan for the future and make informed decisions,” she said.
Members of the Nebraska State Board of Education are scheduled to discuss the draft standards at their Friday meeting.
A final board vote on the standards is not expected until next fall, after a public review period.
The board meeting will be at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel, Eighth and R Streets, in downtown Lincoln.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has called for scrapping the sex-ed topics in the standards.
Ricketts has said that the standards were authored with the help of what he sees as political action groups like OutNebraska while leaving out groups he considers mainstream like the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
The governor has said that other private and parochial schools, including Lutheran schools, should have been included in the process.
Jeremy Ekeler, associate director for education policy for the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said Friday, “Hopefully, the second draft is more representative of all Nebraskans.”
Although Catholic schools would not be required to adopt them, Ekeler said future state leaders could tie the standards’ adoption to a school’s accreditation.
Nate Grasz, policy director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said his organization opposes the sex-ed standards.
Grasz said the standards would “subject young children beginning in kindergarten and first grade to politicized, unscientific and ideologically driven content.”
Five- and 6-year-old children just want to play, he said. They’re excited to learn and be with their friends, he said.
“They believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And to think that we’re now going to be teaching them about gender identity and genitalia, and different types of family structures in kindergarten, really I think has troubled a lot of people across the entire state,” Grasz said.
If the standards were to be approved, Grasz predicts a “mass exodus” of students and teachers from public schools. Some teachers, he said, will feel “like they can no longer in good conscience teach what’s being asked of them in these health standards to young children.”
The state board is not required under state law to write health standards. Nor would schools be required to adopt them. State law requires the board to create standards only in the subject areas of reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
Districts are required by the state to have written health standards or frameworks for health education. Many districts use national standards or their own locally developed ones.
The board is taking public input on the draft standards.
The standards call for teaching children as young as 6 years old about gender identity and gender stereotypes as a part of sex education.
Kindergarteners would be taught about different kinds of family structures, including “cohabitating” and same-gender families.
Fourth graders would be taught the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity. Fifth graders would be taught that gender expression and gender identity exist along a spectrum.
Sixth graders would learn what sexual identity is and learn about a range of identities related to sexual orientation, among them heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, two-spirit, asexual and pansexual.
The standards also address substance abuse, nutrition, safety and various other health-related topics, which so far have not generated controversy.
More than a dozen of the standards in the Nebraska draft — including teaching first graders to define gender, gender identity and gender-role stereotypes — are word-for-word identical to standards in a national set created through a partnership of three national advocacy groups: Advocates for Youth, SIECUS and Answer — Sex Ed Honestly.
The groups advocate for comprehensive sex education and LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
Not all of the standards in the national set — which are called National Sex Education Standards—Core Content and Skills, K-12 — were incorporated in the Nebraska proposal. For instance, the word “abortion,” in the national set, does not appear in the Nebraska draft.
Schulze said students need culturally responsive, inclusive, medically accurate information, and gender discussions in elementary grades should not be left out.
“Young people have a stable sense of their gender identity by age 3. They have an understanding of the restrictive, traditional gender-role stereotypes by age 4.”
Stereotypes can put children in a box that’s harmful, she said. And avoiding such discussions can stigmatize children or leave them feeling their situations have been “erased,” she said.
Megan Smith-Sallans, a psychotherapist in private practice, said she’s worked with hundreds of children and families on gender issues. She runs a support group for parents with children who are exploring gender.
Smith-Sallans is the former director of behavioral health for the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Transgender Care Clinic, where she worked with children and teens identifying as transgender or other amalgamation of genders, she said.
“I think we’re underestimating what children already know,” she said.
Children already are learning about these topics, “it’s just YouTube, TikTok and PornHub that are doing the education,” she said.
“Kids just already have so much information, and who do we want that information coming from?”
Talking to children is really just giving context to what they’re already seeing and hearing around them, she said.
“And I think there’s ways to do it.”
Our best Omaha staff photos of March 2021