General Articles

Helena School District Moves Forward after Sex Education Controversy, Plans for Implementation

Nearly two and a half years since the process began to update and revise the school district’s health education standards, the Helena, Montana, Board of Trustees finally approved the revised Health Enhancement K–12 Critical Competencies on October 12, 2010 by a vote of 6–3. The education guidelines discuss a broad range of health topics; however, efforts to pass the revised plan were fraught with controversy over a small portion of the 60-plus page document. Faced with vocal opposition from a conservative and far right religious minority, the district was forced to scale back some of the sex education guidelines in the final draft of the curriculum.
In addition to other health topics, the Critical Competencies include medically accurate and age-appropriate guidelines for all grade levels on human growth and development, sexual and reproductive health, and human sexuality instruction, and address such topics as sexual harassment and bullying prevention, gender diversity, and sexual orientation, among others. While these instruction topics remain in the final version of the curriculum, some of the language included in the original draft was removed. In particular, guidelines to introduce correct terminology in kindergarten for reproductive organs—such as penis, vagina, breast, nipples, testicles, and scrotum—were edited from the final version. The final version also removed a first-grade guideline to teach that human beings can love people of the same gender and of another gender, and a second-grade guideline teaching that making fun of people by calling them “gay” is disrespectful and hurtful. A fifth-grade guideline explaining that sexual intercourse includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral, or anal penetration was also deleted from the final version.[1] Superintendent of Schools, Bruce Messinger, was responsible for making the changes to the final draft of the curriculum[2] and says that despite the revisions, the intent of the instruction—to provide factual information about sex, reproduction, and tolerance—remains unchanged.[3]
While the board of trustees originally planned to approve the updated health curriculum last summer before the start of the 2010–2011 school year, public outcry over certain sex education topics and criticism that the revision process did not involve enough input from parents forced the board to revise its plan. When the board presented the original draft curriculum to the public in June 2010, the document ignited a local controversy and media frenzy that swelled as the summer months drew on. After the initial draft was released, the district received more than 7,000 public comments on the proposed curriculum, which forced the document back to the curriculum committee for additional review.[4] In early September the board presented a revised plan with the most controversial language omitted from the guidelines and a greater emphasis on teaching abstinence included. A September 28 public hearing on the matter lasted longer than six hours, with both proponents and opponents of the new curriculum providing testimony. Two weeks later the board approved the revised curriculum despite continued dissent by a small number of community members. “[The revised Health Enhancement curriculum] reflects the values and expectations of the Helena community and will provide quality, comprehensive health education for all students,” Messinger stated at the September 28 public hearing.[5]
Over the coming year the school district will work to develop an implementation plan for the new guidelines, which will take effect in the 2011–2012 school year. According to Messinger, the implementation plan will include the selection and development of grade-level curricula, professional development for district staff, the recruitment of community resources and experts to assist with instruction and developing an instructional delivery plan, and a parent education component to be administered at home. A longtime Helena physical education and master teacher will be employed part-time to manage the development of the implementation plan. Funding for the position comes from federal stimulus money awarded to the district to support instructional improvement. The superintendent also noted that the plan will include contribution by parents, teachers, and students through input from Parent, Student and Teacher advisory councils. In addition, the curriculum standards include an opt-out policy that will allow parents or guardians to remove their children from instruction involving content they deem sensitive. The newly approved Critical Competencies mark the first time that the district’s health education standards had been thoroughly revised in more than 15 years.[6]
Despite the long and difficult process to approve the new standards, supporters of the board’s decision say the outcome was worth the effort. “I am really proud of the Helena Board of Trustees for going through this process—listening to the community, making some revisions that reflect a compromise—then ultimately doing the right thing for the kids who go to public schools in this community, which is give them the information that they need to make responsible choices and become responsible adults,” comments Kim Abbott, an organizer for the Montana Human Rights Network.[7] Helena resident Nancy Nicholson seconded the sentiment: “I am so glad that [the board] approved the health education curriculum. I see it as a big step forward for the Helena schools, for good sound education and health information that will be a benefit to all of our students.”[8]
With the approval of the standards now behind them, Messinger stressed that the community must now work together: “Now it is time to move forward, overcome our differences and implement the approved curriculum along with all of the other important areas of instruction.”[9]

[1] Associated Press, “Helena School Trustees Approve Sex Ed Curriculum,” Missoulian, 12 October 2010, accessed 18 October 2010, <>; Alana Listoe, “Board Hears 6 Hours of Testimony on Sex-Ed Plan,” Independent Record, 28 September 2010, accessed 18 October 2010, <>.

[2] Listoe, “Board Hears 6 Hours of Testimony on Sex-Ed Plan.”

[3] Alana Listoe, “Health Curriculum Revised,” 15 September 2010, accessed 18 October 2010, <>.

[4] “Sex-Ed Curriculum Passes: Community and Board Divided,” KFBB News Channel 5, 12 October 2010, accessed 18 October 2010, <>.

[5] Associated Press, “Helena School Trustees Approve Sex Ed Curriculum.”

[6] Helena School District, “Health Enhancement Curriculum Implementation,” statement from the Superintendent of Schools, Bruce Messinger, accessed 18 October 2010, <>.

[7] Marnee Banks, “Helena School Board Passes Sex Ed Curriculum,” KRTV Channel 3, 12 October 2010, accessed 18 October 2010, <>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Helena School District, “Health Enhancement Curriculum Implementation.” .