Mar Lee grew up imagining what senior prom would look like. In Alma, Nebraska, population 1,133, it meant coming-of-age: Teens dancing, parents taking photos and neighbors cheering.

But Lee wanted to wear a tuxedo instead of a dress. And when the time came, they did. Lee felt good, but wondered what it signaled about their gender identity.

“It was really hard, because I didn’t have that language, because I didn’t have those conversations,” said Lee, now out as transgender non-binary and working as a community organizer for LGBTQ+ rights and sexual assault prevention. “I didn’t have access to that information even. It was very confusing.”

Lee’s not alone. Every year, more than 300,000 kids get a variety of sex education, or none at all, nearly 1,000 public schools in Nebraska.

On March 10, Nebraska’s State Board of Education released a draft of its first-ever health education standards, which includes language on topics like gender identity, teen pregnancy and sexual orientation. Though they’d never be mandated, the standards drew ire from the governor, school districts, more than half of the state’s senators, and thousands of Nebraskans.

On July 29, the board revised the drafts to not mention controversial topics to the satisfaction of neither side. On Aug. 30, the board folded and said they would not pursue approving the standards.

But that doesn’t mean the questions this conversation raised are going away. Questions like, who should have control? Who should get to say what kids need to learn in school?

“Fundamentally, children belong to their parents. And so when parents feel like…the Department of Education [is] overstepping their bounds and undermining their rights as a parent, and the values and beliefs that they’re instilling in their children in the home, it causes issues for a lot of people,” Nate Grasz, policy director at Nebraska Family Alliance, said. 

Nate Grasz, policy director at Nebraska Family Alliance, stands outside the Nebraska Capitol on Aug. 22, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Others disagree and say the standard creation process bulldozed dissenting opinions.

“The first draft, I was naive and wanted to believe in the process,” said Deborah Neary, who represents District 8 and a portion of the Omaha metro area on the board. “None of the urban areas had any input, a chance to ask questions or have conversations, or share, the most important thing, what we’ve been hearing from our constituents.” 

Still more say it’s not impossible to implement comprehensive sex education standards.  More inclusive sex education can be found at Omaha Public Schools and in states like Iowa and Colorado. Often these lessons show success in preventing sexual assault, pregnancy and STDs. 

“The jury is no longer still out. We have decades upon decades of research, we have systematic reviews of systematic reviews,” said Lisa Schulze, education and training manager with the Women’s Fund of Omaha. “And young people have told us repeatedly that I received too little information way too late.”

But for many more, this conversation isn’t about research or rhetoric. It’s about people. Like Lee lacked the words to describe how they felt in a tuxedo, kids across Nebraska are likely grappling with similar questions. That’s how Emily Huyck felt before she came out as gay. The director of the Montessori Co-op private school in northwest Omaha which teaches comprehensive sex education said kids don’t have to struggle with those questions.

“If I had language in front of me, or heard the word queer or gay when I was 12 or 13, I would have maybe had a healthier development,” Huyck said. “For my own daughters, I don’t want them to go into a public school where they’re not represented or where their family’s not respected.”

Let’s Talk about Sex

Deb Neary said schools always had questions for Nebraska State Board of Education representatives about how to teach health education topics. Members thought standards could be helpful for curious educators.

But Neary had no idea how controversial this topic would really be.

“This process [of creating sex education standards] in part is all about the politics of attacking public education,” Neary said. “And that’s why there’s been so much misinformation thrown out there to just get people to rally, because if they were just reading the facts, I don’t think our room would be filled with people.”

Deb Neary stands outside Omaha Central High School on Aug. 19, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Sex education has long been a bullseye for controversy, especially in Nebraska. State law does not mandate it in school curriculums — A bill that would have required that failed in 2013. By the time students graduate only about a third will have learned about the sex education topics identifed as critical by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile nearly every student will have heard about the benefits of sexual abstinence, which is mandated by state law if a school does teach sex education.

Changing that has been a challenge. In 2016, an effort to update Omaha Public School’s sex education made national news when opponents spoke out against topics like gender identity and sexual orientation. 

“Yes, we need to give children an education. But the curriculum that you have, the standards you have, gives children too much information,” one woman said of the standards, which were later adopted. “It rapes children of their innocence.” 

In 2021, the controversies and many of the opponents from organizations like Nebraskans for Founders’ Values, which declined to speak with The Reader, are the same.

“Your committees for developing these standards did not include conservative, moderate, common sense parents, educators, medical or psychological professionals because you don’t want middle of the road compromise,” Liz Davids said at an Aug. 6 State Board of Education meeting. “You want to set a social agenda for our kids that will indoctrinate them into sexual perversion and identity confusion to their destruction.”

The first draft of the state’s health education standards matched national recommendations for age appropriate learning tracks, covering everything from consent to personal hygiene. In first grade, students define gender, gender identity, and gender-role stereotypes, while fifth graders learn about sexual intercourse.   

While the entire board of education creates the standards, the AQuESTT Teaching, Learning and Serving Committee controls the process. The four-person appointed committee of state board members provides feedback to the writing team and decides when the board votes on the standards.

But on Aug. 30, the State Board of Education decided that vote wouldn’t come — for now. In its agenda for Sept. 3, it posted a statement saying it would postpone the standards development.

“The State Board of Education received substantial input on the draft Health Education Standards and recognizes that now is not the time to continue the process,” the statement reads. “Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed varied demands on school districts, parents and families, and communities. The intent of the State Board of Education is to determine the most appropriate time to address the topic of Health Education Standards after the pandemic has concluded, as determined by appropriate national, state and local health officials.”

But even up to the end, some members felt left in the dark by the process.

Neary said she never had a chance to voice her opinion. She got the second draft, which nixed language about gender identity, sexual orientation and pregnancy prevention, one day before the public. 

While the writing team consulted 28 doctors and other experts for the first draft, it’s unclear whether it did that for the second draft. The Nebraska chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement it did not agree with changes made in the state’s second draft. Lisa Schulze with the Women’s Fund of Omaha holds a Master of Education in Human Sexuality and is one of two sex educators certified by The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. She was consulted for the first draft, but said she never heard back the second time around.

“I’ve never had any trouble getting information as [other educational] standards were being developed,” Neary said. “But in this process, it was completely done in silence.”

David Jespersen with the Department of Education told The Reader experts were able to submit comments through the same forums as public comment. Meanwhile the AQuESTT Teaching, Learning and Serving Committee meetings are private with no published minutes. Neary also felt the committee was weighted toward rural perspectives with only the southern part of suburban Omaha in Douglas and Sarpy counties represented by Lisa Fricke. Fricke is the committee’s chair and declined to speak for this story.

Nearly would like to see a process where everyone can have an equal say. 

“Given the fact that the urban centers have very different needs than the rural populations, I feel like any draft that doesn’t include input from us is really not even worth reviewing,” Neary said. 

From the Rhetoric to Real Life

On the corner of 52nd and Spaulding Streets in Omaha are two schools. One is Fontanelle Elementary, a public school that allows parents starting at fourth grade to opt-in their kids to human growth and development curriculum taught by a school nurse. The other is Montessori Co-op School, an independent school for children ages 18 months to 12 years old which teaches comprehensive sex education starting in first grade. 

“We have students who seek us out, even when they’re in third and fourth grade. ‘I’m a different learner, I can’t sit still, I’m having a hard time with bullying, or I have different pronouns, or I want to wear a dress and I identify as a boy,’” said the school and nonprofit’s director Emily Huyck. 

Emily Huyck stands outside Co-op Montessori school in northwest Omaha on Aug. 19, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Montessori Co-op implemented a comprehensive sex education program in 2018 after students started asking questions about their bodies. Huyck consulted parents and the Women’s Fund of Omaha, and formed a committee to discuss recommendations and various curriculums. 

Today, Montessori Co-op uses an adapted version of 3Rs: Rights, Respect, and Responsibility curriculum, created by national organization Advocates for Youth. The curriculum teaches kindergarteners about personal space and inappropriate touch, and fourth graders about sexual and reproductive anatomy among other topics. 

“We have some teachers who are faith based in their own development, in their own world, and that might be difficult for them,” Huyck said. “But going through the training, we really help them see that you can answer and offer this information without your own values.”

Omaha Public Schools health curriculum also covers sexual orientation and gender identity beginning in seventh grade, along with STD and HIV information and prevention.  Nationwide, states like Iowa and California mandate medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education. Colorado does not mandate sex education, but requires offered programs be comprehensive and include information for people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+, disabled, and those who have experienced sexual victimization.

Research also supports comprehensive, inclusive sex education programs. A 2012 study shows that group based, risk-reduction education is effective in reducing teen pregnancy, HIV, and STI rates. 

Additionally, studies show that inclusive sex education lowers homophobia, with LGBTQ+ youth facing lower odds of bullying and bisexual youth reporting less symptoms of depression. In Nebraska, 88% of LGBTQ+ Nebraska students regularly heard homophobic remarks, and 60% of Nebraska transgender students were prevented from using their chosen name or pronouns in schools, according to a 2019 GLSEN school climate survey.

But others say that communities need to decide what solutions work best for themselves. Nebraska Family Alliance, a faith-based nonprofit public policy organization, was one of the leading opponents to the health standards drafts.

The Nebraska Capitol, pictured on Aug. 22, 2021. Photo by Chris Bowling.

“A lot of it comes back to, what is the function of the government, what’s the proper role for government to play in this, and again making sure that these decisions, these issues are being driven by parents and families rather than unelected bureaucrats in the State Department of Education,” policy director Nate Grasz said. 

Vocal opponents to the sex education standards came forward at an Aug. 6 State Board of Education meeting in Lincoln. Many feared introducing these new sex education topics to kids would increase abuse, confuse students and go against religious morals. 

“At the tender age of 10, while I was in the fourth grade in Minnesota, I was introduced to sex education and pornography within months of each other,” Scott Klein of Bellevue said at the board meeting. “I spent the next thirty years locked in a disruptive addiction that robbed me of so much of my youth and adulthood. Addiction to pornography is as bad as the worst drug addiction.”

Even after the board removed controversial language from the first draft, many challengers were still frustrated.

“The [Nebraska Department of Education] has taken out explicit examples in the standards and reworded them, but we citizens understand this tactic and that the outcome of draft two will still be [comprehensive sex education] and [critical race theory] in Nebraska’s classrooms targeting Nebraska’s children with early sexualization and indoctrination,” Katie McClemens, Kearney resident and representative for Protect Nebraska Children Coalition, said.

Above all, opponents made clear their loss of trust in the state board of education and the standards drafting policies.

“Why were these standards so critical when local districts were already teaching health and wellness in their classrooms?” asked Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte. “Why is the state board of education wasting so many hours on writing testimonies and rewrites when our state’s academic proficiency levels need to be addressed?” 

Sex (Mis)Education

The one thing that both sides can agree on: sex education has effects far beyond the classroom. What those effects are, that’s up for debate.

Without instruction about pregnancy, LGBTQ+ topics, consent and sexually transmitted diseases and infections, advocates say we’re putting kids at more risk for exploitation.

“Sexual offenders look for children who do not have body safety awareness. That makes them vulnerable, that makes them easy to be exploited,” Schulze said. “If folks are using funny words for their genitalia, that is dangerous, and then makes it more difficult for them to report.”

A 2020 analysis shows that comprehensive sex education programs lead to reduction in dating violence and intimate partner violence, as well as increases in postive bystander behaviors and knowledge of unsafe touches. 

For Mar Lee, sex education in Alma Public Schools was part of their freshman year physical education class. One class period, a representative from Hastings Family Planning discussed birth control, STDs, and abstinence. That was the beginning and end of it.

It was topics they didn’t talk about that continued to impact Lee’s life. In sixth grade, Lee began to question their sexuality. Around the same time, one of Lee’s friends exploring their gender identity was bullied so severely they transferred schools. 

“It was a wide awakening for me as well. Now, I know that I can’t be out. It’s not safe for me to be out,” Lee said.

Sophomore year of high school, Lee was put in a psychiatric care facility after a suicide attempt. While there, they met a teenage patient who was transgender who gave Lee the language to describe themselves.

“This [was] the first time that I met someone else who was transgender, and it was because we were both institutionalized for suicide attempts,” Lee said. “It was just interesting. Of course this is where I would meet another trans person in rural Nebraska. Like statistically, it makes sense when you look at it. But that was my introduction to gender identity.”

Lee also never learned about consent. After they were sexually assaulted they grappled with how her mother defined the crime, that only bad people do it. Today, Lee works with Dear UNL, a student group that works to better University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s handling of sexual assault cases and provide resources to the student body.

“I’ve talked to people who [are] like ‘Oh, well if that’s sexual assault then that means I’ve been sexually assaulted,’” Lee said. “That’s a super common thing, that people don’t have this understanding.”

"Here Today"

Chalk writing at the Aug. 5 Sex Ed Saves Lives rally. Photo by Emma Schartz.

The sun beat down in Stinson park as music blared and people held onto melting snow cones. They walked by sidewalks with chalk drawings declaring “Inclusive Education Now!” 

For the Sex Ed Saves Lives rally on Aug. 5, Nebraska students took the stage to talk about how sex education, or lack thereof, had impacted their lives.

Because for them it’s about more than words on paper. Gender identity, teen pregnancy, sexual orientation: these and so many other topics some see as too controversial to teach are affecting Nebraska’s kids every day.

“With this second draft, many students will be left behind. Opponents pedaling bigotry and misinformation have been allowed to dominate this conversation,” Adolescent Health Project youth researcher Jamie Gould said. “But we are here today to make ourselves heard. Our education system has an opportunity to do what is right for all students, to listen to young people, to give us all the information we need to survive and thrive.”

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