There was a profound sense of fear in the room as more than 80 people voiced feedback to the State Board of Education on Friday regarding the recent health education standards draft.
For almost four hours, people gave words of support and opposition during public comment of the state board’s regular meeting at a downtown Lincoln hotel. Parents, grandparents, children, school officials and other residents described how they are afraid of what the approval — or the rejection — of the standards by the board would mean for the future of education in Nebraska.
The draft is for students in kindergarten through 12th grade and is the department’s first proposal for health standards in the state. It covers such topics as disease prevention, substance abuse prevention, human growth and development, nutrition, physical activity and more.
Since its release on March 10, Nebraska residents have been encouraged to submit feedback either through a public survey or email to the state board.
The board has received more than 4,000 responses to the email made specifically for draft feedback, including several thousand emails about one specific part of the proposal, said Maureen Nickels, board president.
Many proponents and opponents of the draft specifically spoke out about the human growth and development section, which includes teaching students about gender identity, sexual orientation and gender stereotypes starting in elementary school.
Several Northeast Nebraska residents either submitted written responses or spoke in-person on Friday about the draft. Like the majority of the people at public comment, most were opposed to it.
Bill Tielke, Holt County Board of Supervisors chairman, spoke at Friday’s meeting in opposition of the standards.
“(I am) shocked and opposed at the state board’s proposed language and content concerning the education of our children in public schools in regard to nearly 40 items that they have proposed,” he said.
Tielke said he doesn’t want schools to teach children about genitalia, sexual function, sexual intercourse and pregnancy options, which are all included in the draft. He also said he doesn’t want gender identity to be taught or “the teaching of lesbian, gay or bisexual, or the other language.”
“These items have been and should continue to be taught by loving and caring mothers and fathers in the privacy of the home,” he said.
The Cozad Community Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Ron Wymore submitted a letter of opposition on Wednesday. Wymore said various standards including sexual health, gender identity, family structure, relationships and sexual orientation are incompatible with a uniform approach established at the state level.
“While such standards outside the core curriculum are not binding on a district, they express and establish expectations from the state board that inevitably will be imposed upon schools irrespective of their advisory nature and sensitive subject matter,” according to the letter.
Hartington resident Julia Kleinschmit submitted an email supporting the draft on Tuesday. She said the proposal respects parental rights and family values.
“(The standards) align with best practices, respect local control, only apply to public schools and puts students at the center — so they receive accurate information,” she wrote. “This should not be a political matter. It is an educational matter.”
About five Norfolk residents submitted written comments that were included in the board’s online agenda as of Friday. Deana Calderon, a former Norfolk Public Schools teacher, voiced opposition, saying it’s the parents’ right to teach children about sex education and the draft goes against her family’s beliefs and teachings.
Pastor Darryl Brown Jr., founder of the Kingdom Builders Christian Center in Omaha, was chosen by the board as a special public speaker for a 10-minute segment preceding public comment.
He said if the standards aren’t approved, many voices, such as those in the LGBTQ community, would be left out of the conversation, among other issues.
“Part of this conversation has been deeply religious, but we are all not teaching, preaching and believing the same thing,” he said. “These proposed standards actually are about data. Data indeed ought to lead our navigation through this process.”
Nickels said the draft’s purpose is to help guide schools in the adoption of local standards and for students to gain knowledge to avoid health-related risks and behaviors.
“This was just the first initial draft. It was brought to us — it doesn’t mean we agreed or disagreed,” she said. “My role and my colleagues’ role is to simply listen at this point in time.”
Patsy Koch Johns, board vice president, said it’s crucial for the public to know the difference between curriculum and standards.
Most of the opposing feedback the board has received is from frightened constituents afraid the curriculum will change if the draft is approved, she said. In reality, curriculum is decided at a local level, and how schools implement the standards would be up to them.
Patti Gubbels, the board’s representative for Northeast Nebraska, said now it’s time for the Nebraska Department of Education to rely on data while looking through feedback and recommending changes.
“I think it’s important throughout this document, in the review process, to consider developmental appropriateness,” she said. “I think it’s important to look at the standards and ask ourselves for each standard, does this standard truly relate to health education?”
The state department of education will be releasing a second draft, which will undergo a second round of public review. Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt said it’s unlikely a second draft would be finished in the next couple of months.
The state board’s goal is to vote on the standards later this fall. People can still give input on the first draft by taking this online survey or emailing [email protected].
“Our districts have to have standards,” Nickels said at the conclusion of her comments. “I want folks to understand it is a local decision because it’s a locally controlled state, which I am very proud of.”
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