After over a year of deliberation, school board members of the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) voted last Wednesday night, January 20, 2016, to adopt proposed updates to the Nebraska school district’s 30 year-old Human Growth and Development (HGD) standards.
The board voted 9–0 to adopt new content standards for fourth–eighth grade sex education classes. Approved standards include such changes as teaching about sexual abuse in fourth grade and discussing gender identity and gender roles in sixth grade. The board also voted 8–1 in favor of adding lessons and discussions on abortion and emergency contraception in tenth grade sex education classes.
Before last Wednesday’s vote it was unclear if all of the originally proposed topics would be presented to the board. An OPS phone survey conducted in early 2015 revealed “parents overwhelmingly would like to have comprehensive sex education taught in OPS classrooms,” including a majority, 65% of surveyed parents, who supported covering abortion and emergency contraceptives in HGD lessons. However, after a heated October meeting drew a large crowd of loud and rowdy opponents to the HGD standards, a new proposal was brought to the board at their meeting in early January in which standards about abortion and emergency contraception had been removed. In the end, the tireless advocacy of OPS parents, students, and community members paid off; the board voted to pass the original proposal, without any omissions, by an overwhelming majority.
The new, more comprehensive, standards passed the school board with strong majority support, but not all members of the OPS community are embracing the changes. Despite the board offering many opportunities, such as community forums and response forms, for parents, students, and community members to voice their opinions on the changes, those against the new curriculum standards feel that the board did not listen. Board members say they took both sides into account when making their decision, with Board Vice President Yolanda Williams offering that, "Some of this goes against my own beliefs, but sometimes we have to take a step out and look at what's best for all." OPS staff reminds opponents that students can be opted-out of any class or specific lesson without penalty to their grade or attendance. Under the new standards, parents of fourth–sixth grade students have the choice to opt-in to HGD lessons. Older students in seventh grade and above may be opted-out, allowing parents to remain in control over what sex education lessons their children receive.
While the more comprehensive standards have been approved, an implementation timeline suggests there may be more debates to come. Parent meetings about curriculum materials begin next month and OPS will begin a field test of the approved lesson topics this semester in order to develop the specific curriculum. Public schools in Omaha will then integrate the new standards and curriculum into HGD classes beginning in fall of 2016/2017 school-year.