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Nebraska education officials promise changes to proposed health standards
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Nebraska education officials promise changes to proposed health standards

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Facing a hailstorm of criticism over the first draft of health education standards for Nebraska schools, state officials Friday suggested that they will make changes in a second draft.

They only hinted at what might be changed.

They gave no indication that they're going to scrap the sex education topics in the standards, as Gov. Pete Ricketts and many opponents want.

The first draft of the standards, made public in March, calls for teaching children as young as first grade about gender identity and gender stereotypes.​

Members of the State Board of Education took testimony for about 3½ hours Friday during their monthly meeting in Kearney.

Once again, a large crowd leaning heavily in opposition to the standards showed up and filled the room where the board met. The last two meetings saw similar turnout.

About 70 people testified against the standards Friday, while a handful spoke in support.

"These are the people of Nebraska," said Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, testifying in opposition. "They're talking to you. They're asking you, please don't do this. It's important to us. It's important to Nebraska. It's wrong. Simply wrong."​

The second draft is now expected to be made public in early fall.

Board members told opponents that they're listening to the concerns.

Board Vice President Patsy Koch Johns said she had never seen such crowds turn out on an issue. She pushed back on critics who she said suggested that her mind's made up and the standards are a done deal.

"I'd like to assure you that I'm conflicted about so many things in this," Koch Johns said. "I have grandchildren, and I love them with all my heart, like so many of you have told me. And so I want to make sure whatever we do is good for them."

Under the proposed standards, kindergartners would be taught about different kinds of family structures, including “cohabitating” and same-gender families.

Fourth graders would be taught the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity. Fifth graders would be taught that gender expression and gender identity exist along a spectrum.

Sixth graders would learn what sexual identity is and learn about a range of identities related to sexual orientation, among them heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, two-spirit, asexual and pansexual. They would learn the differences between cisgender, transgender, gender nonbinary, gender expansive and gender identity.

Lacey Peters, a health and physical education specialist in the department, outlined some general areas being considered for change in the second draft, based on feedback so far:

* Reinforcing the importance of families, guardians and caregivers in health education. 

* Evaluating the standards to ensure developmental appropriateness across the entire document, with special attention to the elementary level.

* Looking at the overall length of the document and examining repetition.

* Looking at the level of detail in each indicator and ensuring that the specificity of them is consistent and appropriate.

* Reevaluating whether the standards are measurable.

The writing team will begin working this summer on the second draft.

None of the board members offered any specifics about what they think of the first draft.

Board member Robin Stevens said that when people ask him where he stands, he gives a "canned response."

​"As soon as I get a document that is worthy of our debate and our discussion, you will know where I stand," he said.

Opponents have argued that introducing young children to sexual topics would sexualize them, encourage promiscuity, confuse children and leave them vulnerable to sexual predators. They say the standards don't reflect the values of most Nebraskans.

Opponents have further suggested that language in the standards amounts to comprehensive sex education that would open the door for teaching kids about abortion.

Backers of the standards have argued that educating children about consent and proper terms for body parts would arm them to fend off abuse.

They say teaching schoolkids about gender identity and sexual orientation will stem bullying, prevent suicide and make schools a welcoming place for all students, regardless of their gender identity or nontraditional family structure.

Nebraska currently has no state health standards. The standards, if approved, would only be recommended for adoption by local districts.

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