School trustees heard from 64 of the more than 300 people who attended the school board meeting Tuesday night to speak about the proposed health curriculum, but made no decision about whether more public comment will be accepted at next month’s meeting before taking action on the document.
The Helena School Board meeting room couldn’t accommodate all the supporters and opponents wanting to speak to trustees about the proposed K-12 health enhancement curriculum. An additional room across the hall was opened and filled to capacity, and the doors were locked to the outside. More than 100 others stood outside the Front Street Learning Center with a sound system so they could listen to the meeting.
It was the most attended school board meeting in years.
The proposed 62-page document covers a wide spectrum of health concerns and is the result of two years of work by a long list of people. It takes a science-based approach in covering topics such as nutrition, relationships, mental health, environmental health and disease prevention.
But it is the material on human sexuality that has generated large-scale community interest. The question of how much sexual information to teach children and when has evoked strong emotional reactions, which was evident throughout the meeting.
Teresa Burson, the district’s literacy and curriculum administrator, spoke first and said while the committee worked to make sure the proposed draft parallels other curriculums, conversations focused on students.
Employees of the City-County Health Department also spoke before the public hearing began. Health officer Melanie Reynolds said the community needs a comprehensive health curriculum because sexual behavior that may result in HIV infection or other sexually transmitted infections is one of the six types of risky health behaviors identified by the Centers for Disease Control.
She said schools cannot be expected to solve health problems, such as having 40 percent of reported Chlamydia cases in this county being of people between the ages of 14 and 18. Reynolds said a comprehensive approach is the best option for adolescents.
These first few speakers were not given a time limit, but all others who wanted to address the board were allowed two minutes. One hour was given to proponents and another hour to the opponents, which allowed for 34 people to speak in favor and 30 to speak in opposition.
Stacy Anderson said she’s impressed with the Helena School District for looking out for those parents who don’t take an active role in their children’s lives. She said by providing children with knowledge, they will be afforded conversations not provided at home.
Donna Miller, a health sexuality educator, said given the proper tools children can make decisions that are better for the community, themselves and their friends.
Shahid Haque-Hausrath is an expecting father who voiced his support of being open and honest with children.
“To bury our heads in the sand is to fail our children,” he said.
A handful of gay men spoke in favor of the document, particularly the portion that calls for children to understand that making fun of people by calling them names is disrespectful.
Michael Hand-Synness said when he came out to a close friend at Helena High he started receiving death threats.
“The threats continued to get worse and I was forced to transfer schools for my own safety,” he said. “I ended up dropping out after attending all three Helena high schools to try to keep safe.”
Hand-Synness said the draft will be a great way to help prevent some of the intolerance that has made its way into the public schools.
Mary Ann Dunwell said the proposed curriculum includes science-based information on wellness and wholeness.
“This is about reality and truth so our kids don’t grow up in La-La Land, and have sufficient knowledge to make informed decisions,” Dunwell said.
Opponents, on the other hand, claim the document doesn’t represent the norms and values in the community.
Mikal Wilkerson — whose husband Trevor is on the board of trustees and has openly opposed the draft — said something failed in the process to gain community input.
“Why are parents coming out of the woodwork now?” she asked. “I believe it’s because parents weren’t involved in the development and two minutes isn’t enough time to get a point across. I ask the board to vote ‘no’ until we can come up with something that will make proponents and opponents happy. We can come up with a solution before it’s adopted.”
Angela Helland-Hansen agreed. She was surprised to see that staff from Planned Parenthood were included in the committee that developed the document.
“Why are we allowing Planned Parenthood to help with this when they stand to profit from these people who will be their future clients?” she asked.
Two middle school girls said an abstinence-based program would be more effective to reduce teen pregnancy and disease than what is being proposed. There currently is no sexual education being taught in middle school.
Jeff Lazloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, said he’s deeply concerned about the proposal.
“I’ve never seen an issue generate so much emotion and, frankly, outrage,” he said.
Lazloffy said teachers are calling to seek legal advice about whether they can be forced to teach the information, and parents are threatening to pull children out of the public school system.
“Parents and taxpayers are not for this,” he said.
A handful of opponents say if more curricula are to be introduced; the focus should be math, science or art.
“I hope the school board will spend our resources that will help them succeed the most — preparing them for college,” local pediatric dentist Kevin Rencher said.
Trustees had no dialogue with those who attended, merely sitting and listening. They’ll continue to receive comments via letters, phone calls and e-mails until next month’s meeting when a final vote could occur.
After the meeting, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said the board will now decide whether more comment will be accept in a public hearing at the Aug. 10 meeting, and if a final decision is to be made at that time.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org