Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth largest, includes libertine Las Vegas in addition to many communities whose local politics are influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), also known as Mormons. A recent effort by school district leaders to engage community voices on the future of sexuality education in the district has prompted a backlash by opponents of more comprehensive approaches.
Abstinence-only advocates hail from many different quarters in Clark County, but the LDS Church has outsize influence. According to the local newsmagazine Vegas Seven,
“A Mormon has served as mayor of North Las Vegas for more than 30 years, of Henderson for 17 years, and four of the five members of the Boulder City Council are Mormon. Mormons occasionally have held a majority of the seats on the Clark County Commission. As [University of Nevada – Las Vegas political scientist David] Damore says, ‘You have Mormons in key decision-making positions, both elected and bureaucratic.’”
The district, in one of the very few U.S. states that require active written parental consent (known as “opt-in”) for students to attend sexuality education lessons, finds itself at a crossroads on sexuality education. Statewide advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevadaand Planned Parenthood of Southern Nevadaare working to advance a more comprehensive law to replace the existing 1987 law and its parental opt-in policy. Locally, a progressive president of the school Board of Trustees, Carolyn Edwards, has charged district administrators with the task of preparing Clark County schools for possible changes if state law requires them. With this as background, the district began to solicit input from a cross section of community stakeholders; SIECUS, because of its prior experience in training district health teachers, was invited to facilitate four ‘Input Forums’ in May and September of 2014.
Working as a partner with the district’s Science and Health Curriculum administrators, SIECUS helped to develop a process for documenting, analyzing, and disseminating stakeholders’ input once it was gathered. Four forums were held at local high schools, engaging nearly 120 participants. A diverse cross-section of adults attended, including LGBTQ activists, LDS members and others with religious affiliations, home-school advocates, teachers, and community educators. Most identified as parents of students attending district schools. Most of the Trustees attended their local forum, along with District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky.
With the approval of the Trustees, the Science and Health Curriculum administrators chose the SIECUS Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, Kindergarten—12th Grade as the framework for soliciting input at each forum. Stakeholders worked to identify elements from the Guidelines that they felt they could support for inclusion in Clark County’s future sexuality education curriculum. All four forums succeeding in stimulating civil, respectful conversations that highlighted (and sometimes bridged) significant differences of opinion about schools and sexuality education.
Unfortunately, some participants who oppose even the current limited “abstinence-focused” curriculum in Clark County schools left the forums determined to rouse opposition to any progressive change in sexuality education. Despite the fact that no student in Clark County receives any sexuality education unless a parent or guardian has submitted a signed consent form, opponents went to the local media to generate a rumor campaign that the district would soon be forcing kindergarteners to learn how to masturbate. As part of their misinformation campaign they invoked the Guidelines as “recommendations” for the district and provoked needless alarm, ensuring that a subsequent routine meeting of the Board of Trusteeswould be turned into political theater.
Local media, including the conservative-leaning Las Vegas Review-Journal,have played up the misinformation generated by the opposition, characterizing the forums as “secret.” One of their pieces opened,
“They called it appalling, immoral, shocking, reprehensible. ‘I will not stand by and have this taught to my children. I will fight to the death,’ one mother asserted, while another said through tears: ‘I will be pressing charges against anyone exposing my children to these things. That includes teachers and the (Clark County) School District.’”
The ultraconservative American Life League also weighed in to perpetuate falsehoods about the district’s effort, misidentifying Planned Parenthood as the publisher of theGuidelines:
Following Planned Parenthood’s lead, a school district in Las Vegas is actually considering whether it should teach five-year-olds how to masturbate. The connection is not tenuous by any means! A Las Vegas news station identified the curriculum being considered for Clark County public schools. The curriculum is called ‘Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education: 3rd Edition.’…In short, this push to teach five-year-olds about masturbation in public schools in Las Vegas was developed by Planned Parenthood, plain and simple.
In contrast, cooler heads prevailed at the progressive alternative paper Las Vegas Weekly:
“Angry parents who had read SIECUS’ guidelines for gathering community input on ‘developmental messages’ for K-12 descended on a CCSD meeting to protest a document that they believed endorses teaching masturbation to kindergartners. Except it doesn’t. The SIECUS guidelines’ section on ages 5-8 focuses on anatomy, identifying genitals, where they’re located and that ‘both boys and girls have body parts that feel good when touched.’”
Despite the controversy, Superintendent Skorkowsky initially stood by SIECUS and the community input process authorized by the Trustees. In his message to the school community on the district web site, he detailed the true story to set the record straight:
“… I am extremely disappointed with media who have – and continue to – say the district has ‘proposed’ teaching this concept [masturbation] to kindergarteners. We have not…Our district held four community forums in May and September and invited more than 300 parents, community experts and others to give their input on this document… We did this because we wanted to have an open and honest dialogue with our staff and the community on how we could start a conversation about…our sex education curriculum.”
Only after several days of continued attacks from the opposition did Skorkowsky finally relent and abandon his defense of the Guidelines and the community input process, in a letter to the public apologizing for CCSD’s actions thus far.
As the 2014-15 school year progresses, district administrators will continue to gather public comment on potential changes to the existing sexuality education curriculum, and specific recommendations will be issued in 2015 for consideration by the Trustees. In the meantime, advocates for better sexuality education will face the challenge of overcoming the misinformation campaign led by opponents of more comprehensive approaches in the nation’s gambling capital.
Michael Green, “How the Mormons Made Las Vegas. And why we need their engagement now more than ever,” VegasSeven.com, June 6, 2014, accessed October 2, 2014 at http://vegasseven.com/2014/06/04/how-the-mormons-made-las-vegas/#sthash.ztFAnyKn.dpuf.
Nevada Revised Statute § 389.065(1)(a)-(b), accessed October 2, 2014 at http://leg.state.nv.us/nrs/NRS-389.html#NRS389Sec065.
Trevon Milliard, “CCSD’s Secret Sex Education Talks Fuel Parent Ire,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, September 27, 2014, accessed October 2, 2014 at http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/las-vegas/ccsd-s-secret-sex-education-talks-fuel-parent-ire.
Michael Hichborn, “Planned Parenthood’s Twisted View on the Rearing of Children,” American Life League web site, October 1, 2014, accessed October 2, 2014 at http://www.all.org/article/index/id/MTQyODQ/.
Ken Miller, “Sex Ed & CCSD: Dear Parents, No One Want to Teach Kindergarteners about Masturbation,” Las Vegas Weekly, October 1, 2014, accessed October 2, 2014 at http://www.lasvegasweekly.com/as-we-see-it/2014/oct/01/sex-ed-ccsd-teach-kindergarteners-masturbation/.
 “Clarifying Misconceptions About a Debate on Sex Education,” Pat Personally (Superintendent’s page), Clark County School District web site, October 1, 2014, accessed October 2, 2014 at http://www.ccsd.net/district/pat-personally/.
 “Superintendent’s Letter to Parents and the Community,” Pat Personally (Superintendent’s page), Clark County School District web site, October 3, 2014, accessed October 16, 2014 at http://www.ccsd.net/district/pat-personally/2014/oct/3/superintendents-letter-to-parents-and-the-community.