General Articles

Helena, Montana Proposed Health Curriculum Rouses Debate

For two years, members of the Helena, Montana, community have been in the process of reviewing and updating the Helena Public School District’s health enhancement curriculum. The draft curriculum includes eight components: family-community involvement, health education, physical education, health services, nutrition services, counseling, psychological and social services, school health environment and health promotion for staff.[1] While the 62-page document as a whole has not triggered debate within the community, its health education portion, and more specifically the human sexuality sections, is stirring up emotions and dialogue in the capital city.
The sections within the curriculum generating the most discussion among community members include introducing basic reproductive body parts like the penis, vagina, breasts, testicles, and uterus to children beginning in kindergarten, as well as the call for first graders to recognize that human beings can love people of the same gender as well as people of another gender. The curriculum also suggests that fifth grade students should begin to understand that sexual intercourse includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral, or anal penetration.[2] Although subject to criticism by some community members, the majority of Helenans “agree with the sexual education aspect of the Helena School District’s proposed health curriculum.”[3]
Teresa Burson, the school district’s literacy and curriculum administrator, has said that a committee made up of school district administrators, teachers, nurses, health, and police department officials updated the curriculum by “using best practices and research-based information from state and national health organizations.”[4] Superintendent Bruce Messinger commended the thorough two-year process by explaining that “the committee looked at what was appropriate, necessary, and acceptable to the Helena community before crafting language into the existing draft curriculum.”[5]
In the scope of sexuality education policies, Helena’s new draft curriculum reflects not only the evidence of what works but also national trends. Research and polling show that comprehensive sexuality education is a mainstream American value. A vast majority of Americans support comprehensive sexuality education—medically accurate, age-appropriate education that includes information about both abstinence and contraception—and believe young people should be given information about how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.[6]
Superintendent Messinger addressed concerns of the updated curriculum by clarifying the evidence behind the committee’s decision. He explained that research shows that it is a necessity to introduce students to the correct medical terminology for body parts before they begin to learn about human reproduction in the fifth grade. He also explained that Helena School District educators “will not promote, condemn or place value on topics such as homosexuality, but merely say it exists.”[7]
“We aren’t trying to take away lessons from home, but more [be] a springboard for further home or church discussions,” Superintendent Messinger said. This is simply about wanting students “to have accurate information in a safe environment.”[8]
According to 2009 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, almost half of all high school students in Montana have reported having sex.[9] Students “need to understand all sex with exchange of body fluids puts them at risk for contracting infections or spreading infections,” Messinger said, adding that they “need to understand that while engaging in other forms of sex may prevent pregnancy, it won’t prevent disease.”[10]
After a public hearing on July 13, the school board decided to extend their timeline for the process and make revisions to the proposed curriculum. These changes will be presented to the trustees on September 14, and a time for public comment will be scheduled prior to the October board meeting when final action is scheduled to take place.[11]
“We know that young people who receive accurate information, have access to resources, and are equipped to discuss sexuality and related issues make better decisions both now and in the future,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “SIECUS applauds Helena for their efforts and commitment to raising healthy, productive members of society and we look forward to seeing the implementation of the new curriculum once it is approved.”

[1] Alana Listoe, “Sex Education Causes Stir in Helena Public Schools,” Helena Independent Record, 9 June 2010, accessed 17 August 2010, <>.

[2] “Helena Public Schools Health Enhancement K–12 Critical Competencies Draft,” accessed 17 August 2010, <>.

[3] “Majority Agrees with Sex Ed Plans,” Helena Independent Record, 21 June 2010, accessed 20 August 2010, <>.

[4] Listoe, “Sex Education Causes Stir in Helena Public Schools.”

[5] Alana Listoe, “Sex-Ed Provisions to Get Public Hearing Tuesday,” Helena Independent Record, 11 July 2010, accessed 17 August 2010, <>.

[6] Sex Education in America: General Public/Parents Survey (Washington, DC: National Public Radio/Kaiser Family Foundation/Kennedy School of Government, 2004), 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ever Had Sexual Intercourse: High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2009, accessed 18 August 2010, <>.

[10] Listoe, “Sex-Ed Provisions to Get Public Hearing Tuesday.”

[11] Alana Listoe, “Sex-Ed Revisions on Agenda for Schools,” Helena Independent Record, 9 August 2010, accessed 18 August 2010, <>.