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Sex education causes stir in Helena public schools

2010-06-09T01:03:00Z Sex education causes stir in Helena public schoolsBy ALANA LISTOE Independent Record Helena Independent Record

If the conversations stirring in the Helena community are any indication, there’s likely to be a lot of dialogue between parents, community members and school board trustees throughout the summer on the Helena Public School District’s proposed health curriculum.

Teresa Burson, the school district’s literacy and curriculum administrator, presented the revised 62- page health enhancement document to the board Tuesday night.

“Everybody is passionate about it because it affects everyone and our own personal beliefs and values,” Burson said.

The process of revamping the student health curriculum began two years ago with an intense review, and a health enhancement curriculum committee has been meeting monthly all school year — as have several subcommittees — to collaborate on the draft.

Committee members include district staff, and representatives from law enforcement, St. Peter’s Hospital and the Office of Public Instruction. The committee used best practices and research-based information from state and national health organizations, Burson said, and the draft incorporates the district’s philosophy of teaching to the whole child.

The draft curriculum includes eight components: family-community involvement, health education, physical education, health services, nutrition services, counseling, psychological and social services, health school environment and health promotion for staff.

The health education component, which includes sex education, is generating the most controversy.

In the human sexuality section, the draft provides a guideline for when topics should be introduced, claiming age-appropriateness. The draft says that in first grade, students should understand that human beings can love people of the same gender and people of another gender. By second grade, students should understand that making fun of people by calling them gay is disrespectful and hurtful. In fifth grade, the document says students should understand that sexual intercourse includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral or anal penetration. The proposed document’s reproductive system portion aims to give body parts proper names starting in kindergarten.

Currently a “maturation day” is held for students in Helena Public Schools in fifth grade — boys in one room and girls in another — where body parts, function and reproduction are presented.

There is currently no specific health education taught in elementary school beyond what’s incorporated into physical education and daily classroom lessons. In high school, health class is required at the sophomore level.

“By 10th grade, they’ve made their choices — good and bad,” Burson said.

The comprehensive health curriculum affords students the knowledge and tools to live a healthy lifestyle, said Drenda Carlson, Youth Connections Coalition director.

Some conversations in the community suggest that the information proposed is too graphic for elementary-school minds.

Cindie Bacon is the mother of an outgoing kindergartner. She says her daughter has no interest in how babies are made. Bacon says that if this age group is not at a place where they are asking questions out of curiosity, the information should not be pushed on them.

“In addition, why do they have to learn such a list of reproductive body parts?” she wrote in an e-mail. “I have no problem with basic body parts being taught, but again, my 5-year-old girl has no need to understand the scrotum or testicles at this point.”

Bacon believes children should learn about these important subjects at their own pace, with their parents, who can give as much or as little detail as the child’s curiosity and maturity levels dictate, not part of a school district curriculum.

Karrie Fairbrother, who works at St. Peter’s Hospital and served on the committee, said she’d rather be a proponent of giving students information to know the possible consequences before they make a decision that can harm them for life.

“Give them the tools to make informed decisions,” Fairbrother said to trustees. “We do have sexually active students — more than 50 percent of students in high school are.”

If trustees approve the draft, a big piece of the implementation will be professional development and deciding who will teach what. Superintendent Bruce Messinger said one option would be to hire an instructional health coach using stimulus money to work with classroom teachers on how to implement the new protocols, but that’s not yet been discussed or determined.

Burson said the primary focus would be kindergarten though eighth-grade teachers to help them integrate the curriculum into other subjects such as consumer science and environmental safety.

Not all the details are ironed out, and trustees say they hope the public gets involved and offers input.

Messinger said if the document is approved, the district always works with families when areas taught in school don’t mesh with personal beliefs. For example, there are a few book titles — a recent example in Helena was James Welch’s “Fools Crow” — that are typically required reading in high school English classes, but that some families don’t want their teenagers to read. In those circumstances, the school works with the family to select another book. Parents uncomfortable with the information disseminated to students have the option to withdraw.

“Some of these are personal decisions that require family discussions,” Messinger said in an interview on Monday.

About 30 people attended the board meeting, but none were allowed to offer public comment on the first reading.

During the second reading, scheduled for 6 p.m. July 13 at the Front Street Learning Center, public comment will be accepted, but it’s also accepted in writing at the May Butler Center or by e-mail to bmessinger@helena.k12.mt.us.

 The third and final reading is set for Aug. 10 at which time trustees will vote to approve or deny the draft.

A DVD of the presentation is also available at the May Butler Center.

Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or alana.listoe@helenair.com

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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