By: Katie Hall and Aaricka Washington – statesman.com – October 29, 2019
The Austin school board unanimously approved a new sex education curriculum that, for the first time, will teach elementary students about sexual orientation, gender identity and sexually transmitted diseases.
The vote, which came in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, had at least one conservative group considering legal action over the source of the learning materials.
For more than a year, district administrators, parents, community members and advocacy groups grappled with what to teach elementary and middle school students. Austin’s Human Sexuality and Responsibility curriculum has not been changed in a decade for elementary students and in seven years for middle school students. Under the new curriculum, educators will also teach lessons on healthy relationships, puberty, pregnancy and reproduction. Parents may opt their children out of one, multiple or all the lessons.
“There’s no doubt that the topic of sex education in public schools elicits strong reactions,” board member Kristin Ashy said to a room filled with people after listening to more than three hours of public comment Monday night. “Tonight offers itself as an example of these reactions.”
Ashy said that, as a parent of two Austin school district students, she will eventually decide whether her children should participate in this curriculum or whether they will opt out.
“I am thankful to be part of a district that provides parents with options,” she said.
The school board vote came just after midnight, after more than 100 parents and community members voiced their opinions on the issue. Those speaking were about evenly split between supporters and those who disapproved of the curriculum. The line to get in the meeting, at the school district’s headquarters on West Sixth Street, snaked around the building.
As members of the conservative religious advocacy group, Texas Values, held a news conference before the meeting to express their opposition, protesters who supported the curriculum interrupted them with music, kazoos, megaphones and chants.
Naomi Wilson, who stood in front of the Texas Values speakers and chanted “black trans lives matter,” was arrested by an Austin school district police officer and charged with trespassing before the meeting began. Wilson was scheduled to speak during the general comment portion of the board meeting.
“I think people on both sides of this craziness out here are sensationalizing what this is about,” said parent Matt Pennies. He opposes the curriculum and said he pulled his son out of the Austin school district because of it, though his three daughters still attend schools in the district.
“I get the sensitivities around the LGBT issues. I tried to say this, but I was drowned out by the chaos — even in a strictly heterosexual context, this content is just so aggressive,” Pennies said. “It’s just so much, so soon.”
“I am more at risk of falling into unhealthy relationships than other students,” McKenna said. “I appreciate learning how to recognize and break these cycles through communication and respect. … When I came out to my family, it felt so much better when I knew they were supporting me, but I know that’s not the case for everyone.”
Trustee Yasmin Wagner thanked McKenna and other “students who had the courage to stand up in a room full of adults and tell us what they need.”
“The only agenda at play here tonight is ensuring that our students have access to medically accurate, inclusive information about their bodies, relationships and consent,” Wagner said.
Although the school board voted to adopt the curriculum, Texas Values is mounting a challenge. Trustees in February first approved the topics that would be taught for students in grades three through eight. But the district had to scrap its middle school lesson plans, developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, after the Texas Legislature passed a law prohibiting local governments from doing business with abortion providers or their affiliates.
Kathy Ryan, the district’s director of academics, said that the district does not have any legal concerns because it did not contract with, nor did it take donations from the Canadian groups. Ryan said the online resources were free.
In March and April, principals will meet with families to discuss the new curriculum, which is scheduled to be taught in May.
“I believe AISD is moving in the right direction,” Eve Molnar, who has two middle school students in the Austin school district, said outside the school board room Monday. “We should be teaching inclusive, comprehensive sex education that teaches about sexual orientation, gender identity, consent, contraception, safe sex practices and sexually transmitted diseases. I’ve looked at the lessons online, and I believe they’re age-appropriate. … It was important for me to come down here and be present, as a member of the LGBT community and a member of the AISD community.”