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State board halts development of Nebraska health-education standards

State board halts development of Nebraska health-education standards

The Nebraska Department of Education has revised its proposed health-education standards, stripping out many of the sex-education references that provoked a groundswell of opposition to its first draft.

After twice attempting to come up with statewide health-education standards amid a firestorm of opposition, members of the Nebraska State Board of Education on Friday pulled the plug on the process.

Board members voted 5-1, with one abstention, to indefinitely postpone development of the standards.

According to a statement adopted by the board, the board would determine the appropriate time to address health-education standards after taking into consideration “the state of the pandemic, the needs of children, schools and communities, and the readiness of local school stakeholders.”

The statement noted the “substantial input” it received on the draft standards, saying it “recognizes that now is not the time to continue the process.”

A crowd of about 200 people gathered Friday at the La Vista Convention Center for the board’s meeting, with some cheering after the vote was taken.

Voting in favor of halting the process were state board members Robin Stevens, Lisa Fricke, Patti Gubbels, Maureen Nickels and Patsy Koch Johns. Board member Deborah Neary abstained, and board member Patricia Timm was absent from the meeting.

Board member Jacquelyn Morrison, who voted against the resolution, said Friday’s vote would prevent the board and the Nebraska Department of Education from talking about anything related to health at a time when schools are dealing with a pandemic and behavioral health and physical health issues involving children.

“We’re going to vote to say health is off the table for now because it’s too hard,” she said.

Fricke responded that the board did not delay the process because it was hard work.

“We kept in mind children, communities, parents, leadership officials and schools from across the state,” she said. “We are not going to abandon working or developing health standards.”

Prior to the vote, board members were told that, under board rules, any board member could attempt to revive the process with the support of a board majority.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who called for the sex-education topics to be scrapped within days of the first draft being released, on Friday thanked “the thousands of Nebraskans who wrote in, attended meetings and called their State Board of Education members.”

“The State Board of Education could bring these controversial standards back at any time. We must remain vigilant,” Ricketts said.

He also noted that the state education department is independently governed by an elected board and that the governor does not appoint board members or agency staff.

State law does not mandate that the state education department write health standards, as it does with math and language arts, for instance. Without a mandate, whatever the board adopted would have been only a recommendation for local schools.

In the absence of statewide health-education standards, districts will continue to develop and adopt their own local standards.

The education department had assembled a team of Nebraska educators to come up with the standards. An advisory team chosen by the department provided input, but it was criticized as not reflecting a broad cross-section of Nebraskans.

The first draft released in March led to strong opposition, and a second draft released in July fared no better, despite the removal of many topics that opponents disliked.

State officials underestimated the groundswell of opposition that rose up to fight the initial draft.

Its release spurred creation of an organized opposition group called Protect Nebraska Children Coalition, which this week had 20,000 Facebook members. Opponents flooded board meetings, which became tense and emotional, prompting board member Neary to say she felt threatened.

The coalition’s leaders Friday said they intend to “pivot our focus to the 2022 elections for state and local school board races.”

The group has formed a political action committee that, according to its website, will support and finance “strong conservative Nebraska candidates for local, regional and statewide positions that will impact children and families across the state.”

The Nebraska Family Alliance and Nebraska Catholic Conference, which helped lead opposition to the standards, said in a joint statement Friday that “every child deserves an education that is free from graphic sexual curriculum and ideologically driven content.”

“The past several months have exposed a glaring disconnect between the board of education and the citizens of Nebraska, but the clear, consistent and courageous voices of parents won the day,” the statement said.

Board member Koch Johns said the process has been overpoliticized from the start, by opponents bringing in critical race theory, and people using the issue to campaign for future offices.

“Our children should not be about political parties or used as steppingstones to the next office by interjecting topics that have nothing to do with the health standards,” she said.

Some of the criticism of the proposed health standards alleged that the draft reflected critical race theory, although state officials dismissed that idea.

Critical race theory refers to a way of looking at systems, institutions and laws through the lens of race and racism. Opponents have used the term to cover a broad range of anti-racism and diversity curriculum and initiatives.

The initial draft of the health standards called for teaching children as young as first grade about gender identity and gender stereotypes and older children about homophobia, transphobia and vaginal, oral and anal sex.

Fifty-two of Nebraska’s 244 school districts adopted resolutions opposing the first draft, with additional districts expressing concerns, according to the office of Sen. Joni Albrecht. This week, 27 of Nebraska’s 49 state senators urged the board to halt development.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt acknowledged in July that concerns over the health standards had helped “fuel a crisis of confidence in the department and across the education system in Nebraska.”

He promised then that some of the material critics found objectionable in the first draft would be removed, which was done.

Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youths had hailed the initial draft as a positive step toward inclusion, but they expressed disappointment when the second draft stripped out most references to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Some advocates had called on the board to create a third draft that restored those topics, arguing that LGBTQ youths needed to see themselves in the standards.

This week, the Women’s Fund of Omaha had urged the board to “do the right thing for young people by finishing the work they have started.”

After the board voted Friday, advocates expressed their disappointment.

“I’m very disheartened,” said Tia Manning, who is the Prison Rape Elimination Act advocacy coordinator for the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

She said it’s important to make sure health standards are inclusive and relevant to all young people, regardless of their gender identity.

The hardest part, she said, is hearing from the youths who testified at the board meeting in favor of standards.

Poll: Do you agree with the decision to scrap the health education standards?

You voted:

“We’re not listening to them,” she said.

The first draft contained language recognizing diverse family structures, gender identities and sexual orientations, which advocates said would have made those children and families feel welcome instead of ostracized and vulnerable to depression and suicide.

In the original draft, the term gender identity appeared nine times, starting in first grade, when students were to learn to define gender, gender identity and gender-role stereotypes. That reference and several others in later grades were deleted from the second draft.

In the second draft, the term gender identity appeared twice.

The draft called for teaching seventh-graders to recognize that “biological sex and gender identity may or may not differ.” It defined gender identity in a glossary as “internal deeply held thoughts and feelings about gender.”

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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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