Sex education

Sex education in some American high schools is evolving beyond pregnancy and disease prevention to include lessons aimed at curbing sexual assaults.

AP file photo

Lincoln Public Schools students learn about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases in their health classes, but the lessons do not broach the subjects of abortion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sixty miles to the east, those three subjects were among the topics that drew thousands of people to Omaha Board of Education meetings during months of discussion about an update to the district’s health education standards.

On Wednesday, the OPS board approved the changes with just one dissenting vote. Members said they believed the new standards provide accurate information on sex, dating, bullying and social media that will help students make healthy decisions in a world saturated with inaccurate information.

Opposition to the changes gained attention from national news outlets and, at one point, required police intervention. 

Opponents saw the first update to the standards in nearly 30 years as an attempt to indoctrinate children with ideas about sexual freedom and said it covered content that should be the purview of parents. They worried that the standards -- and the concept of comprehensive sex education -- were backed by organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

In Lincoln, LPS faced a similar controversy over gender identity issues last year that drew hundreds to board meetings and attracted national attention.

But sex education wasn't on the hot seat here. Rather, parents were upset about teacher training on gender identity, a book read to elementary students on the subject and district transparency.

At LPS, sex education doesn't touch on gender identity or sexual orientation, said Curriculum Director Jadi Miller.

“Any number of subjects can come up (in class discussion) but those are not objectives we teach,” she said.

The last update of the LPS health curriculum was in 2009-10, following updated national health education standards. Minor changes have been made since, such as updating new nutritional guidelines. The next major overhaul hasn't been scheduled.

In addition to growth and development, the health curriculum covers mental and emotional health, use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, nutrition and disease prevention.

The last update had no major changes to sexual education, which includes teaching 8th and 10th-graders about 13 different forms of birth control -- including emergency contraception known as the morning-after pill. Both middle and high school students have lessons on sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence is stressed as the best way to avoid both pregnancy and STDs.

LPS curriculum doesn't talk about abortion -- a hotly debated topic at OPS -- because it doesn't align with district objectives, Miller said.

“Our emphasis is on prevention and avoiding risky behavior, avoiding risky situations and understanding the consequences of them,” Miller said. 

LPS teachers can -- and do -- invite speakers from Planned Parenthood and the Pregnancy Center to talk to middle and high school health education classes. 

That’s a concern to some, and Citizens for Accountable and Responsible Education, a parent advocacy group formed last year, now has an opt-out form on its website for parents who don't want Planned Parenthood to talk to their children.

Matt Avey, LPS curriculum specialist for health education, and Miller said both Planned Parenthood and the Pregnancy Center have expertise in the topics covered, and speakers must stick to topics in the district’s curriculum.

That means, neither talks about abortion.

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Topics covered by Planned Parenthood include abstinence, avoiding risky behavior, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and breast and testicular self exams, Avey said.

The Pregnancy Center, a faith-based organization that doesn’t recommend abortions to clients, sends speakers who touch on topics including making healthy decisions, preparing for a healthy marriage and dealing with cultural and peer influences.

Teachers send letters home to parents informing them of upcoming lessons on sex education -- and outside speakers -- and parents can opt children out of those lessons.

Rachel Terry, who helped form CARE and ran for the school board last year, said a more specific letter on the content being discussed would be helpful.

She opted her daughter out of a portion of the seventh-grade sex-ed curriculum after getting a letter from the school and going to the school to review the content.

“The letter sent home was very vague,” she said. “If I hadn’t actually gone in and talked to them, I wouldn’t have known (specifics). There are a lot of parents who just don’t have the time to go to the school and look at the textbook.”

Lee Todd, who also criticized the Lincoln district last year, doesn’t approve of some of the content in the sex education curriculum and thinks LPS should focus more on core subjects.

He offered a proposal to the board to change its policy to require parents opt their students in for such instruction, rather than having them opt out. The school board didn’t adopt those suggestions but members are still discussing some possible policy changes.

The updated OPS standards also address bullying, harassment and dealing with social media, topics LPS is in the process of incorporating into other classes through new social emotional and digital citizenship curriculum.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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