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State board halts development of Nebraska health-education standards
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State board halts development of Nebraska health-education standards

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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 the resolution, 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."

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

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A crowd of about 200 people gathered Friday morning at the La Vista Convention Center for the board's meeting.

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

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.

State law does not mandate that the Nebraska Department of Education write health standards, as it does with math and language arts, for instance. Without a mandate, whatever the board adopted would have only been 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 Nebraska Department of Education 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 removal of many topics 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 Deb Neary to say she felt threatened.

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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.

The initial draft 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.

Within days of the first draft being released, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts called for scrapping the sex-education topics, which he said were developed with input from activists and promoted "gender ideology."

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 youth 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 youth needed to see themselves in the standards.

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.”

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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