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State education board hearing on health standards marked by rancor, divided testimony
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State education board hearing on health standards marked by rancor, divided testimony

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NDE officials discuss revised health education standards draft. Thursday, July 29th, 2021.

The second draft of the state's health education standards don't do enough to protect LGBTQ youth, advocates argued at a marathon Nebraska Board of Education meeting marked by rancor Friday.

But many on the other side of the debate made their point loud and clear, too: The revised standards, which stripped much of the controversial sex education references that appeared in the first draft, still go too far and deprive parents of their fundamental rights.

The mix of voices and opinions — and rowdy applause and jeers — filled a spacious Nebraska Innovation Campus conference room, where the Board of Education held a lengthy public comment period.

About 100 speakers, who took the mic beginning in the morning and continued well into the afternoon, were each allotted 2 minutes to testify. Officially, 120 people signed up to speak, although some left before addressing the board.

"Stop dividing us!" one woman in the crowd shouted at the eight board members and Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, seeming to sum up the polarized mood in the room.

Board members appeared divided themselves. In discussions after public comment, some voiced concern about the process and called for a third draft. Others defended the state Department of Education's intentions and emphasized a desire to reestablish trust with the public.

However, no action was taken Friday since the department is still fielding feedback, which will be sent to a board committee for further review.

The meeting comes one week after the department unveiled the second draft, which stripped most of the sex education references that had been included in the first draft released in March.

The first draft ignited a wave of backlash, with much of the criticism targeted at the human growth and development portion, which contained lessons on gender identity and same-sex family structures. 

But those controversial lessons were absent from draft No. 2, which advocates say leaves out representation for LGBTQ students and identities. 

"You basically made a whole group of Nebraska youth feel unseen," said Ruby Kinzie, a high school senior from Wayne, and one of the many young, LGBTQ people to speak at Friday's meeting.

Others said sex education is a necessary tool to prevent bullying and suicide, in addition to incidences of unprotected sex, unplanned pregnancies and STDs. Those in the LGBTQ community, for example, are more likely to attempt suicide while in their teens than their peers, many advocates pointed out.

"Comprehensive sex education is suicide prevention," Eric Reiter, who identifies as LGBTQ, told board members.

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On the other hand, many who opposed the latest proposal say it still goes too far, while some said it was merely a thinly disguised version of the first draft. 

And while a few praised the department for leaving out the most controversial elements of the standards — which included lessons for seventh graders on different types of sexual intercourse — speakers argued the standards should still be completely scrapped.

"It's just a watered-down version of draft No. 1," said Heather Hall of Roca, who has three children who attend public schools.

Some critics have said the revised standards still retain references to gender identity, including a definition in the draft's glossary of gender identity as "internal deeply held thoughts and feelings about gender."

Nebraska Department of Education strips most references to gender identity from proposed health standards

Others have pointed to one section in the human growth and development portion, where seventh graders would learn to "recognize that biological sex and gender identity may or may not differ."

"(Draft No. 2) is a highly sophisticated and intentionally obfuscated restatement of version No. 1," said Gerald Kershner of Minden.

Like dozens in the room, Kershner sported a red bandana that identified him as a member of one of the many groups that came in droves to oppose the standards.

Among those groups was Nebraskans for Founders' Values, which took a charter bus from Kearney to Lincoln. According to its website, the group aims to "awaken the silent majority and then channel the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens back to the Word of God and our Founders’ Values."

One speaker criticized the group, pointing out a photo on Twitter that went viral Thursday, showing a sign attributed to the group at a booth at the York County Fair, which displayed an Adolf Hitler quote: "He alone who owns the youth gains the future."

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Another speaker referenced the siege of the U.S. Capitol as lawmakers certified the election of President Joe Biden on Jan. 6 in his criticisms of the health standards.

"How many (more similar events) do you need to see?" he asked board members.

At one point, after the 70th speaker had already taken to the mic at about noon, the palpable tension in the room reached a head when those in the crowd began shouting at each other after one speaker insisted he was interrupted.

At times, many in the crowd waved small placards, indicating they supported the speaker testifying and wanted the standards scrapped.

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Much of the early public comment featured testimony from the LGBTQ community and its allies, many of whom came from Omaha to testify, before those on the other side of the debate took up the majority of testimony as the day went on.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who identifies as LGBTQ and testified Friday morning, said parents will always have the option to homeschool their children and can opt out of the standards if they are adopted. 

"Any concerns about parental control are not valid," said Hunt, who called out members in the crowd who laughed or jeered at speakers.

The board held its own discussion of the standards after the public comment period. Some of the members voiced concern about the education department's process and transparency, while others said they would like to see a third draft. Board member Deborah Neary, who said her Omaha constituents weren't represented in draft No. 2, even suggested starting the process all over.

Board member Patsy Koch-Johns said she thought the first draft needed only minor adjustments and thought it was better than the second version. She said she was "astounded by the courage" of some of the speakers Friday.

"I hope we as the board have the same courage that those young (LGBTQ) people had today," said Koch-Johns, who represents Lincoln.

Other board members said the department needed to begin a "healing process" with the public after a tumultuous past few months, fueled by the outcry over the standards.

"I think it's critically important that we work to restore trust," said board member Patti Gubbels. "And I believe the only way we can do that is by bringing some kind of closure or resolution to the health education standards." 

Gubbels said she would hate to see the standards scrapped completely, adding they contain vital material, such as lessons on injury prevention and nutrition, among other topics.

The standards — if approved — could be voluntarily adopted by local school districts. But more than 40 have already said they would not adopt them. The state board had no role in writing the standards.

This is the first time the Nebraska Department of Education has attempted to draft health education standards, which it is not required to do.

The public is still welcome to provide feedback online. Blomstedt has said a third draft could be released after feedback is gathered. Although a firm timeline has not been set, a final decision could come as early as this fall.

Contact the writer at zhammack@journalstar.com or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @zach_hammack

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K-12 education reporter

Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.

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