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Proposed sexual health curriculum changes divide Parkway residents

By: Mary Shapiro

After about 2.5 hours of discussion on Sept. 9 – including about an hour of public comment by 19 residents – Parkway’s Board of Education pledged more review will take place on proposed revisions to the district’s sexual health education curriculum.

Speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting, which attracted more than 50 people, were divided over the changes. But Ron Ramspott, Parkway’s coordinator of health/PE programs and the outdoor school, and Lisa Merideth, assistant superintendent of teaching, learning and accountability, told the board during its work session that proposed revisions to the health and physical education curriculum framework are the result of a regular review process.

Merideth said this curriculum, which also focuses on nutrition, safety, substance abuse, mental and emotional health, and disease prevention, last was reviewed in the 2007-2008 school year. The latest review started last year, with a board vote on accepting the now-proposed changes planned for the board’s Oct. 21 meeting.

Ramspott said that, as with any curriculum evaluation, a comparison of the health and physical education curriculum versus state and national standards was made.

“This audit identified that the Parkway curriculum had some missing pieces,” he said. “Most notably was the limited coverage of the standards for sexuality education. Therefore, the sexual health curriculum was recommended for a more thorough study than its usual periodic tuning.”

To review the curriculum. Parkway established a Sexual Health Advisory Council comprised of more than 90 participants, a large majority of them parents, which met 10 times total between July 2014 and July 2015 to provide feedback. The next advisory council meeting is set for 5 p.m. on Sept. 29 at Parkway Central Middle School. The purpose of that meeting it to provide information from the Missouri Department of Health on medically accurate information in the proposed changes and for a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Partnership (TPPP) report on determining whether proposed content is age-appropriate.

Ramspott said the council had reached out to community health organizations as well as Superintendent Keith Marty’s religious leaders group about the plan. He also said surveys were sent to students, parents and teachers last fall to gather feedback regarding the existing sexual health curriculum.

“We received over 1,600 parent responses to this survey with a very favorable overall opinion of the content, but less favorable feelings of our support for them in their role in helping educate their child about sexual health topics,” he said.

The goal of the proposed revisions is to better define curriculum content, as well as update the health topics and conversations to be more relevant to current health trends, issues and challenges; laws regarding sexual consent; and navigating informational networks for appropriate resources.

“There are unique health challenges that our youth face today, that society has introduced to us, not the schools,” Merideth said.

She said it’s important to teach children about gender and sexual identity.

“The obligation of health educators is to provide the context for which to have age-appropriate, value neutral conversations in a safe and respectful learning environment,” Merideth said. “The health challenges faced by the transgender and gay population are concerning. There is research and data that many students who identify as transgender or gay are bullied and harassed in our schools and in our communities. Bullying and harassment of all kinds disproportionately impacts gender non-conforming, transgender and gay students.

“We know that most every Parkway school has transgender students who beg for our understanding and acceptance.”

She added that it’s Parkway’s obligation to teach all students to develop understanding and acceptance of all students.

She said the intent of changes “is to not condone or promote certain behaviors, but to validate that they exist and understand how everyone can help in diminishing real threats to the health of our youth and communities.”

Ramspott added that sexual health is only 4 to 6 percent of the entire health and physical education curriculum in elementary and middle school, and only 1/6 of the high school health curriculum.

He noted that the current Parkway sexual health curriculum is best defined as an “abstinence-based” program and said that in the recent parent survey, respondents identified overwhelmingly in favor of an abstinence-based sexuality education program, but there also was a large contingent of parents who supported the teaching of comprehensive sexuality education standards.

“In the proposed revisions, we remain mostly as an abstinence-based sexuality education program, but there also was a large contingent of parents who supported the teaching of comprehensive sexuality education standards.

“In the proposed revisions, we remain mostly as an abstinence-based program but have addressed a few more standards that are inclusive in a comprehensive sexuality education program,” he said. “This is not a curriculum that encourages students to consider whether they may be transgender or gay, as it has been characterized, but is a five-lesson, age-appropriate sequence on gender and diversity, with the goal of developing understanding and sensitivity toward the population of students in our classrooms and in our community who identify as transgender or gay.”

He gave the example of third-grade lesson objectives, including a statement that gender roles are the rules people think they should follow because of their sex.

“Students will brainstorm gender-specific roles and behaviors that they have encountered or witnessed (and) will explore how different cultures and societies have different beliefs regarding gender roles,” he said.

In grades seven and eight, a lesson would help students learn about how to be respectful and accepting to people who are gender non-conforming or transgender, and explore how stereotypes about gender roles and expression can be hurtful, he said.

If the board approves the curriculum revisions in October, professional development for teachers will be take place this fall. A parent meeting would be held in January to allow parents to learn about the sexual health curriculum and parent education sessions pertaining to sexual health.

Alissa Beach, a district parent, public health educator and member of the advisory council, said the process of developing the new curriculum had failed in communication and other areas.

“Some input was clearly dismissed – changes aren’t supported by parents,” she said, asking the revision process be restarted “with a more unbiased, independent facilitator.”

“The district has attempted to implement these changes but tried to keep them under the radar. Surveys sent out were confusing and vague, and results weren’t used to guide the curriculum – 91 percent of the survey responses showed residents were satisfied with the current curriculum, so why is Parkway proposing to drastically change it?” she asked.

Parent Carol Green, while saying she applauds the district’s desire to make schools more comfortable for LGBTQ students and ensure they are safe from bullying, said that “the use of gender identity theory in an effort to accomplish this is extremely troubling.”

Michelle Butler, a parent and another advisory council member, protested that the TPPP organization has a link to Planned Parenthood on its website, “and I have a concern on who Parkway is aligning itself with. We need another organization without ties to an abortion provider.” She also contended that TPPP, on its Facebook page, is “promoting a student-led petition to support more inclusive sex education, so they’re clearly biased and supporting an agenda.”

Parkway parent Rob Roseman said it should be parents’ responsibility to teach sexual values.

“If you take a child out of a sexual education class, that child could be seen by others as being judgmental and hateful, and, if the child remains in the class and stays silent, it appears the child agrees with certain lifestyle choices,” he said.

The Rev. Daryl Madi, senior pastor of West County Fellowship and a Parkway parent, said there’s a need to love all who feel ostracized “but I’m concerned there will be a gender expression discussion that will involve my third-grader.”

“I encourage the board to figure how we can move forward together and for people to keep working on this plan. There won’t be a solution if many parents pull their kids out of classes,” Madi said.

But other speakers supported the revisions.

“Why don’t we deserve a more relevant sexual health curriculum?” asked Ashel McNamee, a senior at Parkway West, who said she identified as LGBTQ. “Why don’t we deserve to learn about safer forms of sex or other kinds of sex than heterosexual? My health is as important as anyone’s and I’m tired of not being included in the curriculum.”

The Rev. Kevin Cameron, senior pastor of Parkway United Church of Christ and a Parkway parent, said he was pleased the sexual health curriculum was being revamped, “and I urge you to go further, sharing medically accurate dialogue with all students.”

TJ Cotton, a student at Parkway Central High, said she identified as LGBTQ/gender non-conforming and was among more than 300 who have signed a petition to support the changes.

“I don’t like feeling I need to match myself with a curriculum I don’t identify with,” TJ said. “Teachers aren’t informed on these issues and don’t want to speak about them in class.”

Darlene HawkerSelf, a science teacher at Parkway West Middle, also said she was glad to see revisions focusing on safety and hygiene as well as access to LGBTQ issues “because kids do better when they see themselves mirrored in school.”

Board President Chris Jacob said he felt there is so much good in many of the proposed revisions “that I’d hate to throw away the baby with the bathwater – but I’d feel more comfortable with some (gender identity/expression) lessons targeted to older kids.” He also said he was concerned that the district not appear like it’s advocating for organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

Board member Deborah Hopper wondered “why we’re being rushed to make a decision and implement this.”

“What if we need more dialogue and what would be the risk to wait until next August, to be more thoughtful?” she asked.

But Merideth said the revisions have been studied for a year already, much longer than the six to eight months devoted to other curriculum revisions.

“We’d be holding up other curriculum implementations,” Superintendent Keith Marty said. “This topic creates a lot of emotion and can cause division. But I’m proud that, in Parkway, we don’t resist taking on tough issues. We just need to meet on ground we all can agree on and ensure all voices are heard.”

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