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Misinformation Fuels Fear in Omaha

October 29, 2015

Last week, a special town hall meeting in Omaha, NE, that drew more than 1,000 parents, students, and community members, devolved into shouting and shoving as misinformation fueled fear and hysterics.

As part of an ongoing effort to include the community in the process of updating its 30 year old health and sexuality education standards, Omaha Public Schools (OPS) staff held a meeting on October 20, 2015 to share proposed content standards for its human growth and development curriculum and collect feedback from attendees. Proposed changes to the curriculum include discussion of gender identity and gender roles starting in sixth grade, a lesson on sexual orientation and gender identity beginning in seventh grade, and inclusion of abortion and emergency contraception in tenth grade lessons on reproductive health and family planning. “We see parents as the first teachers of their children, and we want to make sure that partnership continues throughout this process,” OPS assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, ReNae Kehrberg said. “We recognize some parents may feel they would prefer to teach some of this content in their own home, and that’s always an option.”

The meeting followed a phone survey conducted January 29—March 27, 2015 as well as a community forum held in April. The survey of 1,500 parents of current OPS students showed that the vast majority of OPS parents preferred a curriculum that taught both abstinence and ways to prevent pregnancy. More than 60% of OPS parents believe that information on emergency contraception and abortion should be covered in class, and over 70% supported the inclusion of gender identity and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. The April community forum drew over 150 attendees to contribute to small group discussions on how parents and schools could work together to broach topics such as teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence-only programs, and comprehensive sexuality education.

This support, however, was not evident in the crowded auditorium Tuesday night, after which OPS officials stated that some attendees weren’t necessarily even OPS parents or students. The large and vocal crowd was spurred on by opponents of comprehensive sexuality education through misleading social media posts, pamphlets, and picketing on the sidewalk outside in the lead up to the meeting. Parent Bernie Garcia waved a sign that read “Say No to Comprehensive Sex Ed.” Garcia, who has a fourth-grader in OPS, said he heard the new curriculum would teach students different sex positions and how to masturbate. In attempts to correct misinformation, OPS passed out a list of frequently asked questions, in which the district clarified that lessons start in fourth grade, that Planned Parenthood would not be involved in the new curriculum, that OPS would continue to encourage abstinence, and that the district would not hand out birth control or take students to get abortions.

Anticipating a turnout of 400 attendees, OPS had to change the meeting format and location to accommodate the 1,000-plus crowd. “The turnout last night limited our ability to have those good conversations we wanted our parents to have,” said Superintendent Mark Evans, intending for the meeting to include more small group discussions. Officials brought the meeting to an early and abrupt end when it became clear that group discussion was not possible, at which point several attendees started shouting and briefly shoving each other before police officers intervened. “A group of young LGBTQ people were threatened with violence by a mother and her son for being there, for not apologizing for their sexuality, and for supporting education that was respectful of their identities,” wrote Jay Irwin, a University of Omaha professor in attendance. “They were called evil, sinful, and told they were going to hell. The advisor that brought them, who is also queer identified, was told that she was teaching them how to be gay and that she should be ashamed of herself. When the advisor asked that the person be respectful, that's when the threats of violence began. She ushered her groups out to make sure they stayed safe.”

On October 22, OPS posted a Human Growth and Development online response form on the district's website to provide the community with further feedback opportunity about the district’s proposed human growth and development standard updates. The online response forms can be submitted through the end of the day Sunday, November 8, 2015.

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