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Nebraska education officials promise changes to proposed health standards
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Nebraska education officials promise changes to proposed health standards

Facing a hailstorm of criticism over the first draft of health education standards for Nebraska schools, state officials on Friday suggested that they will make changes in a second draft.

They only hinted at what might be changed.

They gave no indication that they’re going to scrap the sex education topics in the standards, as Gov. Pete Ricketts and many opponents want.

The first draft of the standards, made public in March, calls for teaching children as young as first grade about gender identity and gender stereotypes.

Members of the Nebraska State Board of Education took testimony for about 3½ hours Friday during their monthly meeting at the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Kearney.

Once again, a large crowd leaning heavily in opposition to the standards showed up and filled the ballroom where the board met. The last two meetings saw similar turnout.

About 70 people testified against the standards, while a handful spoke in support.

“These are the people of Nebraska,” said State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, testifying in opposition. “They’re talking to you. They’re asking you, please don’t do this. It’s important to us. It’s important to Nebraska. It’s wrong. Simply wrong.”

The second draft is now expected to be made public in early fall.

Board members told opponents that they’re listening to the concerns.

Board Vice President Patsy Koch Johns said she had never seen such crowds turn out on an issue. She pushed back on critics who she said suggested that her mind’s made up and the standards are a done deal.

“I’d like to assure you that I’m conflicted about so many things in this,” Koch Johns said. “I have grandchildren, and I love them with all my heart, like so many of you have told me. And so I want to make sure whatever we do is good for them.”

Under the proposed standards, 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. They would learn the differences between cisgender, transgender, gender nonbinary, gender expansive and gender identity.

Board member Lisa Fricke, who chairs the board’s teaching and learning committee, said members will continue to gather public input and provide guidance “to make sure key areas of concern are addressed in the second draft.”

“Changes will be happening,” she said.

“What I want to make clear is we’ve been listening,” Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt told the crowd.

Board member Patti Gubbels said “the process is working as it’s intended to work, though it has been a painful process. I think sometimes out of pain comes important decisions.”

Feedback is being analyzed, and the state is moving toward the next step, she said.

Lacey Peters, a health and physical education specialist in the department, outlined some general areas being considered for change in the second draft, based on feedback so far:

Reinforcing the importance of families, guardians and caregivers in health education.

Evaluating the standards to ensure developmental appropriateness across the entire document, with special attention to the elementary level.

Looking at the overall length of the document and examining repetition.

Looking at the level of detail in each indicator and ensuring that the specificity of them is consistent and appropriate.

Reevaluating whether the standards are measurable.

Opponents have questioned whether some of the standards dealing with sexuality are measurable.

The writing team will begin working this summer on the second draft.

Board member Jacquelyn Morrison said people have asked her whether additional people will be added to the writing team as it works on the second draft.

The governor and others have said advocacy groups were invited to give input on the standards, while others with more traditional views were not.

Blomstedt said state law says standards must be written by educators. He said he’s looking at how to get people involved in an advisory role.

“We’ve heard concerns that certain folks weren’t engaged, so we’re looking for some other things to kind of add to that process to ensure that there’s other voices at the table and able to be a part of that,” he said.

None of the board members offered any specifics about what they think of the first draft.

Board member Robin Stevens said that when people ask him where he stands, he gives a “canned response.”

“As soon as I get a document that is worthy of our debate and our discussion, you will know where I stand,” he said.

Opponents have argued that introducing young children to sexual topics would sexualize them, encourage promiscuity, confuse them and leave them vulnerable to sexual predators. They say the standards don’t reflect the values of most Nebraskans.

Opponents have further suggested that language in the standards amounts to comprehensive sex education that would open the door for teaching kids about abortion.

Some opponents have said the draft standards contain language used by adherents of critical race theory. Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the U.S. are inherently racist, and have created inequalities between White and non-White people, according to Britannica, an online encyclopedia.

Backers of the standards have argued that educating children about consent and proper terms for body parts would arm them to fend off abuse.

They say teaching schoolkids about gender identity and sexual orientation will stem bullying, prevent suicide and make schools a welcoming place for all students, regardless of their gender identity or nontraditional family structure.

Nebraska currently has no state health standards. The standards, if approved, would only be recommended for adoption by local districts.


joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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