A study on sex education in Nebraska schools drew fiery testimony Thursday during a legislative hearing at the state Capitol.
Dozens of people sought to head off what they believe is an attempt to mandate comprehensive sex education in all school districts, something Nebraska does not require but 19 other states do.
"I do not think the schools should be teaching this. This should be taught at home," Deb Andrews of Lincoln told members of the Legislature's Education Committee midway through the nearly three-hour hearing. "If children need more information than they're getting in their particular home, if they're taught to read, they can get it themselves."
Another speaker, Amber Parker, said what is already being taught in many schools amounts to pornography.
"If a neighbor was sending this, and showing kids and talking to them about it, the police could arrest them," she said.
But supporters of requiring sex education argue students are often left to rely on their peers — who might be just as misinformed — or on the Internet for information.
That includes websites like UrbanDictionary.com, a user-contributed site with definitions for slang terms, said Lydia Meyer, a high school senior from Hastings whose group, Sunny D's, teaches fellow students how to reduce their risk of getting HIV/AIDS.
"These students are looking for information" said Julane Hill, director of school health for the Nebraska Department of Education. "They want to hear it from a respected adult that they trust."
Pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases can be major obstacles to students' academic success, Hill said, testifying on the department's behalf. And Nebraska schools are doing "not well at all" at informing young people about those issues.
Those who oppose requiring sex education fear the state would adopt standards recommended by groups such as WISE (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education), which the state Board of Education joined last year, or Get Real, a middle school sex education program backed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
"I believe that such standards should be developed by local school districts to address their needs, not dictated by the state," said Pat McPherson, a member of the State Board of Education.
Different parents and schools want different things for their children and students, he said.
For some, that includes abstinence.
"The same reason that we don't allow kids to choose to smoke a cigarette or to buy cigarettes is the same reason that we do not give kids a bunch of options when it comes to their sexual health — because their brains are not fully capable of making those choices," said Jerrod Cunningham, a relationship educator with the Assure Women's Center, which provides "abstinence-based" lessons in some Omaha-area schools.
Abstinence is part of comprehensive sex education, but that message alone isn't always effective, supporters of statewide standards said.
"Abstinence is not occurring," said Dr. Daniel Leonard, a Hastings pediatrician whose clinic teaches sex education for local schools beginning in fifth grade.
He knows of children that age already texting and chatting online about sexual activity — even making jokes and nursery rhymes about what STDs they could or could not contract based on their activities.
"I cannot argue that the biologic truths regarding abstinence will absolutely not result in pregnancy as well as sexually transmitted infection," Leonard said. "That being said, we all know that what is possible and what are probable are two very different things."
A bill to require sex education in Nebraska schools has not been introduced in the Legislature this year, although such a measure failed after being put forward in 2013.
Thursday's hearing was part of a legislative study to examine "the integral link between academic achievement and risky health behaviors" as well as strategies to address those behaviors, including comprehensive sex education in schools.
The study was sponsored by Lincoln Sens. Adam Morfeld and Patty Pansing Brooks, and Omaha Sens. Rick Kolowski and Tanya Cook. All are members of the Education Committee except Cook, who recently switched committees.
"I firmly believe that if we want to stop the epidemic of STDs, particularly in our urban areas, and also prevent unplanned pregnancies, that we have to have some sex education in place," Morfeld said Wednesday.
But the goal is to listen, he said, not push an agenda driven by advocacy groups: "There's no conspiracy."
"I would beg differ," said Mark Bonkiewicz, executive director of Nebraskans for Founders' Values, which he described as a pro-religious liberty organization that opposes mandatory sex education as one of its major issues.
"We've just been saddened over time to see the decline in moral standards," Bonkiewicz said.
On less than three weeks' notice, the group rallied dozens of like-minded people to attend Thursday's hearing.
And if a bill is introduced to require sex education, Bonkiewicz said his group will "fight it tooth and nail — with a lot more people than were there today."