For more than six hours Tuesday, the Helena school board of trustees heard lengthy and passionate testimony from citizens who both supported and opposed the sex education provisions in a revised health enhancement curriculum.
In two weeks, they will vote on the matter.
Concerned citizens packed the Helena Middle School auditorium to weigh in on the revised document, which was changed after an outpouring of comments on the first draft released in June. Those who supported the Helena School District’s proposed health enhancement wore pink. Those who opposed the document wore blue. Both sides carried signs, and both were repeatedly asked by the moderator to refrain from speaking out of turn and clapping. The board knew the meeting would be widely attended, which is why they changed the venue from the Front Street Learning Center, where meetings are typically held.
After testimony, the board did not discuss the topic. Chairman Michael O’Neil said he appreciated everyone coming out and said it’s a testament to how important the children of this community are. Trustee Trevor Wilkerson, who has been outspoken against the curriculum and whose wife is leading a charge against it, moved to send the draft document back to a parent advisory committee involved with the process. No second was made, and the motion died.
Trustee Aidan Myhre said at 10 p.m. that to ask the board to make a decision Tuesday night is unfair to the process. She said they need more time to deliberate before making a final decision on whether to accept or scratch the second version.
The original document was released in June, and board members initially hoped to vote before the start of school in September. But in reaction to the overwhelming community response, the process was slowed, and Superintendent Bruce Messinger made revisions to the document over the past months to reflect some of the many concerns over language and age-appropriateness. The original draft took two years to complete by a group of more than 40 people, from district administrators to teachers to health professionals.
Messinger’s revisions were presented earlier this month, and the public hearing Tuesday provided the first opportunity for the board to hear community feedback on those changes.
The majority of the changes were made to harassment/bullying, influence of family and human sexuality sections. However Messinger has said that the spirit and the intent of the document remain intact.
In the reproductive system pages, accurate body part names were removed from the early elementary grades, and replaced with the phrase “use medical terminology when referring to all body parts.”
The human sexuality section of the document originally stated that first-graders would “understand that human beings can love people of the same gender and of another gender,” but that language was removed. The influence of family section was changed to recognize that family structures differ. It notes by sixth grade that each state has laws that define marriage, and in Montana a marriage is between a man and a woman, but other states allow marriage between adults of the same gender.
Graphic language in fifth grade explaining that sexual intercourse includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral, or anal penetration was removed from the current version.
The current version also more highly promotes abstinence and that it is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
More opponents than proponents spoke during the six-hour meeting, many of them upset about the information in the curriculum, the way it was drafted and edited, and the process through it all.
Local builder Jerry Hamlin said while he appreciates the attempt to revise, the process the district used violated the trust of parents and doesn’t reflect the values of the community.
Many parents said they’d remove their children from public school if the document was approved, and Helena mom Jacqui Garcia testified she already did.
Another common theme from those opposed was that the district has bigger issues to address. Jerry Strong, of Helena, said the district should be focused on math and reading scores and graduation rates.
“Sex education isn’t our problem,” Strong said.
Mandy Moody said she hopes the board listens to parents who don’t want the privilege of teaching sex education at home taken away.
“It’s insulting,” Moody said. “There is not justification for teaching such graphic information when test scores are so low.”
Another opponent suggested that the issue be taken to the polls where voters can decide, and another suggested maybe everything should be approved without the human sexuality portions.
Sharon Nason, a local counselor, said the document only represents one viewpoint.
Mikal Wilkerson, local mom and wife of board member Trevor Wilkerson, recognized that board members are in a tough position because either way they vote, the community will be divided.
“The only answer seems to go back to the table and start over,” Wilkerson said. “Be specific to create a table with lots of viewpoints and lots of parental input.”
Supporters of the document say the information is needed so young people of today make healthy choices. Alan and Nancy Nicholson say the document will help children make informed decisions.
“The purpose of education is to empower children through education,” Nancy Nicholson said.
Alan Nicholson said trustees must make their decision based on their best judgment and not what’s the most popular or the personal consequences they might endure because of how they vote.
Patrick Johnson, a public health worker for 35 years who lives in Helena, said he sent his son to a private school where only abstinence was taught. His son fathered three children from three women.
“I believe if he would have attended a school with some sex education, things would be different,” he said.
Physician Robert Shepherd said the goal of a health-enhancement curriculum is to delay the onset of sex, and prevent pregnancy and disease.
“Only comprehensive sex education achieves those goals,” he said. “It works. You need to do something that works for our kids.”
Amy Ryan, a 2006 graduate of Capital High School, said society expects schools to teach math and science, but asked why it should stop there.
“In a society constantly flooded with sex images … I can think of nothing more important than education,” Ryan said. “When we stop fearing sex, and start embracing our bodies, we’ll have confident, self-loving students.”
Martha Cole said she is shocked by the level of information her children are bombarded with. “I’d like some accurate information from the school,” she said. “If children come home with information I don’t agree with, it opens the door for discussions.”
Becky Foster, a retired librarian administrator, said information is healthy. “No one has ever been harmed from too much factual information, while much can come from not enough,” Foster said.
Emily Harris, a senior at Helena High School, said some of her friends get their information about sex from magazines. “We get all other knowledge from school and should get this knowledge too,” she said.
Some supporters spoke of personal experiences of sexual abuse and said information such as what’s being proposed may have helped to prevent those crimes.
Montana Sen. Christine Kaufmann said she recently celebrated her 19th anniversary of living in a loving relationship with another woman. Kaufmann said she thinks it’s OK that second-graders know about her relationship; that fourth-graders shouldn’t call her names and high-schoolers shouldn’t beat her up because she’s gay.
Everyone who wanted to speak was able to speak at the hearing, unlike at an earlier meeting in which proponents and opponents were allowed for only one hour each.
The board is expected to take final action at the Oct. 12 meeting at Capital High School. That meeting begins at 6 p.m.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or email@example.com