The battle is over.
By a 6-3 vote Tuesday night, Helena School District trustees approved the health enhancement curriculum that caused a tidal wave of opposition from parents who thought it taught too much sex education too soon.
Board members Trevor Wilkerson, Terry Beaver and Robin LeNeve voted against the motion to pass made by Don Jones, and seconded by Elizabeth Goldes.
Administrators worked with the committee of more than 40 health officials, teachers and staff over a two-year period to develop the comprehensive health enhancement curriculum before presenting it to the public for the first time in June. Since that time, board members have been hit hard with an outpouring of community response.
LeNeve said to move it forward without more parental involvement will only add to the distrust that’s been created through this process.
“It will be a stronger district by going back and visiting before this is passed. Eventually it will pass, but without allowing our parents to come in, this will be a disaster,” she said.
Although Beaver said as a biologist and an educator he sees the document as sound with no political agenda, he said that as a trustee he couldn’t support the document because of the potential decrease in funding from student enrollment because of parents pulling their children out of schools and the potential lack of support for future mill levies.
A second motion made by Wilkerson, whose wife led a public charge to dismiss the curriculum, to take the document back to the committee and review it with a parental advisory committee failed.
“It’s like a big speed bump that’s caused a lot of turbulence in our community,” Wilkerson said. “I think if we speed through this over the speed bump it will cause more turbulence. It’s going to send people into isolation and divide our community.”
Wilkerson’s comments received a standing ovation from opponents in attendance at the Capital High School auditorium.
The original document was first presented to the public in June, and since then, school officials have received thousands of responses both in support and in dissent. After two public hearings and two revisions, the final draft was approved without amendments.
Superintendent Bruce Messinger was the sole editor of the revised document and said he considered all public input. The portions of the draft curriculum dealing with sex education generated the most response both for and against. The original document would have introduced body part language in kindergarten, told first-graders that human beings can love people of the same gender, and taught fifth-graders that sexual intercourse includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral or anal penetration. All of this language was removed through Messinger’s editing process.
The new version also makes abstinence a higher priority, making sure that starting in fifth grade, students are taught that abstinence from sex is a “healthy choice” and “the only 100 percent effective way” to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Messinger said he recommended the board approve the document because students need a quality health enhancement program so they have factual information and guidance to make informed decisions and maintain good health during their school years and through adulthood.
The next step in the process is the development of an implementation plan for the curriculum. Messinger recommended to allow parents and students to select the educational tools containing sensitive content that best aligns with their belief systems.
Nearly every board member had a prepared statement for the meeting. Jones, who made the motion to pass, said the present health curriculum in Helena is lacking. He added that the driving force was not the superintendent, but rather a need that was addressed through the now-approved curriculum developed by trained professionals.
Trustee Joe Cohenour said it provides a policy and standards to teach what’s right and what’s wrong. Cohenour, who is also a Montana Highway Patrol trooper, said the document is part of student achievement.
“We have 128 registered offenders in Helena and each one of those guys went after a kid — and those are the ones we know of,” he said, adding that if students are being abused they can’t do well in school.
Two student representatives, who are nonvoting members, supported the curriculum because it provides students a safe place to learn about sex for those who don’t learn it at home.
Goldes said students need the tools to make good choices for themselves.
Trustee Aidan Myhre said she’s struggled with the curriculum since it was introduced, but says the board respected the community’s wishes to slow down.
“At the end of the day I have tremendous trust in the teachers,” she said. “My support is because I trust them.”
Trustee Cherche Prezeau said it’s not a decision trustees have come to lightly, and she agrees that there are no real winners. Prezeau, a mother of four, said at the end, for her, it comes down to doing what’s the absolute best for the students, which is to pass the revised curriculum.
“Our school board has taken a course of action that has divided our community,” she said. “My vote is that we give all students what they need to be healthy, happy and safe.”
Before the meeting, Beaver, one of the three dissenting votes, sat alone quietly in the audience.
“We are in this position to serve the public,” said Beaver, who has been on the board for seven years. “When it’s controversy such as it is, there’s no way we can satisfy the entire populous.”
A couple parents told the board during the public hearing portion that they had or were planning to remove their children from the school system. It’s a message many parents threatened over the course of the summer and fall.
Lori Page tried to address the character education portion of the revised document, but was refused due to the meeting guideline that says the public comment portion is for items not on the agenda. After the meeting she said she’s disappointed the curriculum passed.
“It’s an approach that’s harmful and undermining to family values,” Page said.
Bruce Norum, a father of four, said he’s saddened by the decision because it will only further divide the community.
Niki Zupanic, ACLU public policy director, is pleased with the outcome. She noted that parents still have an opt-out option. “It’s giving students what they need for making the best choices,” she said after the meeting.
Messinger said he’s pleased with the approval because it symbolizes the transition into the next phase of developing the implementation plan. He said he hopes families stay involved.
“Clearly our motive was around student health and well-being,” he said.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org