After controversial update, this is how they're teaching sex ed at OPS

Pssst.
Have you heard what they’re teaching
kids about sex in Omaha Public Schools?
What you heard, it turns out, may not be true.
STORY BY JOE DEJKA AND ERIN DUFFY | ILLUSTRATIONS BY MATT HANEY | THE WORLD-HERALD

By Joe Dejka and Erin Duffy / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Fact is, last year’s fiery debate over what to teach produced plenty of smoke but not a lot of clarity on what would be taught. Critics compiled a list of “jaw-dropping” material they believed would be taught, the Archdiocese of Omaha posted some of those findings in a blog, and district officials responded with their own rebuttal of that blog post.
Parents were left to wonder who was giving them the straight scoop.
To get to the bottom of things, The World-Herald reviewed the human growth and development curriculum for seventh, eighth and 10th grades — hundreds of pages of material in textbooks, websites, videos, PowerPoints and CD-ROMs.
What we found is presented here.

SCENARIO EXAMPLES

The Omaha Public Schools curriculum uses scenarios to teach students how to handle various sexual situations. The scenarios deal with topics such as how to refuse unprotected sex, recognize harassment, negotiate condom use and stay safe online. Sometimes students are asked to role-play. Other times they are asked to read and review the scenarios. Typically, then teachers guide students in a discussion. Below are some examples.
10th grade, resisting pressure to have unsafe sex
Situation: Your parents are gone for the evening, and you’re baby-sitting your little brother. He’s already in bed and asleep. You call your boyfriend/girlfriend to come over. You’ve been dating for seven months and really like each other a lot. You’ve made a promise to never have sex without using a condom, and up until now have always used one each time you and your partner have had sex. You begin making out and getting turned on.
INEFFECTIVE VERSION
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “This feels so good. I feel so close to you.”
You: “This feels good to me too. But maybe we should use a condom?”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “I don’t have one. But it won’t hurt if we don’t use a condom just one time.”
You: “Well, probably not. But we did say we’d try to use them ...”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “Let’s skip it just this once.”
You: “I don’t know ...”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “Don’t you think it would be nice just to see what it feels like without a condom?”
You: “Yeah, I wonder about that too.”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “This is feeling so good. I don’t want to stop now.”
You: “I don’t either. I guess we can always use a condom the next time.”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “Sure. But let’s not worry about it tonight.”
EFFECTIVE VERSION
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “This feels so good. I feel so close to you.”
You: “This feels good to me too. But I don’t have any condoms. Do you have one?”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “I don’t have one. But it won’t hurt if we don’t use a condom just one time.”
You: “I want us to use condoms every time we have sex. I told you before that it’s not OK for us to skip using a condom.”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “Let’s skip it just this once.”
You: “No. I won’t have sex without a condom.”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “Don’t you think it would be nice just to see what it feels like without a condom?”
You: “It might be nice, but it’s not worth the risk. I’m not ready to be a parent, and neither are you.”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “I know, but this is feeling so good. I don’t want to stop now.”
You: “I know it’s hard to stop. But I’m not going to have sex without a condom. The next time we see each other, let’s make sure we both have condoms. That way we won’t have to stop. But we have to stop tonight. Let’s watch that TV show you like instead.”
Boyfriend/Girlfriend: “OK, I guess you’re right. Let’s watch the show.”

In a nutshell, the curriculum encourages abstinence, but it assumes some high school kids will have sex. It teaches about contraception, including a condom demonstration in 10th grade.
Here are some highlights:
» Most of the role-play scenarios and passages that a conservative group described as “jaw-dropping” last summer are not being taught.
Nebraskans for Founders’ Values board member Maris Bentley examined one of the documents that the Omaha Public Schools listed among their curriculum resources, and identified 25 role-play scenarios and passages she thought would “horrify” parents. The group led the opposition to OPS’s sex education update.
OPS cut 14 of the passages from its final version of the curriculum, which wasn’t distributed to teachers until after school started last fall. Four were rewritten. Seven of the passages remain in the curriculum.
For example, OPS changed the names of a couple in a sexual decision role-play scenario from two girls, “Andie and Diana,” to the more ambiguous “Pat and Diana.” But OPS officials included a lesson, which the Founders’ Values group opposed, that directs students to an online tool called “Which Contraception is Right for Me?”
» For the first time, students are taught in school about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Teachers spend one class period on those issues, less than most other topics. In contrast, 10th-graders spend eight days studying alcohol and drug abuse.
Students are taught that discovering one’s gender identity and sexual orientation is a normal process. OPS encourages teachers to use gender-neutral terms as much as possible — “partner,” “person” or “someone” rather than “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “man” or “woman.”
However, OPS officials declined to adopt language in one national curriculum that contained an advisory to teachers that some scenarios would refer to “someone with a vulva” rather than saying “girl” or “woman.”
» Tenth-graders learn about abortion — also a new topic in the curriculum. Abortion is described as controversial, and one way to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, along with adoption and keeping the baby. The topic is part of a two-day lesson on teen pregnancy. Specific abortion procedures are not discussed.
» Teachers devote three days to teaching abstinence.
A pro-abstinence message is woven into other parts of the curriculum. Students in seventh and eighth grades are told the best way to protect their bodies, hearts and futures is by abstaining from sex. Tenth-graders are taught that abstinence is “the safest, most effective way to protect yourself from HIV, other STDs and pregnancy.”
“We do not believe that kids should be sexually active,” said Karen Spencer-May, the district’s supervisor of human growth and development. But, she said, some kids are sexually active, and “we need to best protect them any way that we can.”
In a 2015 survey of teens by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.2 percent of high schoolers reported they’d had sex at least once. Douglas County has gonorrhea and chlamydia rates that are higher than the state and national averages. Teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 made up nearly 61 percent of chlamydia infections in 2015.

The posters above include curriculum being taught in OPS health and sex education classes.

MORE COVERAGE

Wondering what is being taught during sex ed? Take a deep dive through curriculum to find out exactly what middle and high school students are learning. Read more

To assemble the curriculum, OPS spent $360,426 to buy a variety of materials. No single textbook or online curriculum contained all the material OPS educators wanted to cover in their sex education classes. From those textbooks and online sources, district officials selected the lessons they wanted to teach.
Lessons start in the fourth grade, taught by the school nurse, and focus mainly on puberty. The level of detail — and possibility for controversy — increases as classes proceed through middle and high school. Lessons in the upper grades are taught by classroom teachers.
OPS officials said they knew that some of the national materials would have to be edited to avoid offending Omaha sensibilities. They struck words and passages, tweaked language and skipped whole chapters to develop lessons that fit their vision.
For instance, officials altered a list of questions students are supposed to ask themselves before deciding to have sex. OPS substituted “undressed” for the word “naked” in the question “Am I comfortable being vulnerable in front of my partner, for example being naked with them?” OPS officials said they thought the community would be more comfortable with the more ambiguous term.
And they decided that eighth-grade teachers would not do a condom demonstration, as suggested in one textbook.
Spencer-May said officials modified some language while retaining the core purpose of the lessons.
“What we tried to do was neutralize it a bit, because sometimes a curriculum is more extreme than we would do in Omaha, Nebraska, or say or think,” she said.

Teacher James Abueg assists junior Zacarias Domingo Paiz, center, with answering a question on his worksheet during a lesson on bullying in a human growth and development class at Omaha South High on Sept. 30, 2016. (BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Despite the editing and deletions, critics maintain that the curriculum sends mixed messages about sex by promoting abstinence while teaching kids such things as how to use condoms and shop for birth control. They say it encourages the sexualization of children — for instance, using role-play scenarios that portray high schoolers making decisions about having sex — and promotes unhealthy behaviors and attitudes. They say the edits were cosmetic rather than substantive, designed to placate parents.
“This is about the souls of children. This is about protecting children from being exposed to sexual immorality, sexual perversity, under the guise of education,” Bentley said.
OPS officials say the curriculum materials — approved unanimously by school board members in May — have been well-received by teachers and students. Many teachers feel they now can openly discuss topics that were formerly taboo in OPS classrooms. One topic that remains taboo is masturbation. If students ask about it, teachers are advised to say: “Some people do it, others don’t. Some religions find it inappropriate, other people are fine with it. Please talk to your parents about family beliefs.”
The district’s curriculum continues to cover health and wellness topics such as nutrition, self-esteem, and drug and alcohol abuse. In the updated curriculum there’s a bigger emphasis in high school on sexual assault, dating violence and sex trafficking. Internet safety and the dangers of sexting get plenty of ink, too.
“When our original curriculum was adopted (in 1986) there weren’t even cellphones,” said OPS assistant superintendent ReNae Kehrberg. “Sexting wasn’t even in our vocabulary.”
But the sex education piece, which includes lessons on reproductive anatomy, abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, teen pregnancy and abortion, has unsurprisingly received the most attention.

And while opponents may have lost a crucial battle by failing to block the adoption of the new curriculum, they haven’t conceded defeat. Their attention has now shifted to urging parents to opt out of the classes altogether, and they’ve got a powerful partner in the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Deacon Tim McNeil wrote a blog post in September that included excerpts from the curriculum, though many of the references included have been changed or removed. “Catholic parents are turning their backs on the Omaha Public Schools’ new sex education curriculum,” he wrote.
McNeil said in an interview: “When we waded in, it was simply to offer the Catholic teaching on human sexuality with our parents. Our OPS schools are fine schools. But we have an obligation to teach the faith in the correct way to make sure they’re getting the appropriate teaching on human sexuality.”

SCENARIO EXAMPLES

Seventh grade, deciding how to handle an online encounter
Students decide whether online scenarios represent green lights, red lights or yellow lights
Catherine, who is 15, logs on to a chat room for teenagers. Her screen name is CathyKisses15. A guy called MikeyMike99 said hi to her a few days ago, and they’ve talked every day since. He’s really easy to chat with, and she likes venting to him about things that annoy her at school and at home. She hasn’t told him anything too personal yet. “U seem so mature. Ur 15 right? I’m 20,” MikeyMike99 says.
What light do you think Catherine should choose in this situation? Explain your choice.
Eighth grade, how to handle sexting pressure
Read the story below, along with the text conversation that follows. Discuss what might have happened afterward, based on the decisions made by the two characters. Then write an ending to the story.
Sixteen-year-old Shaila and her boyfriend, Jake, have been dating for a month now. Things are going pretty well, and they’ve been flirting a lot online and through texts.
Shaila feels like she’s falling in love with Jake, and Jake really cares about Shaila as well. One school night, they stay up late texting each other.
Jake: “so…what r u wearing?”
Shaila: “wouldn’t u like 2 kno”
Jake: “hopefully nothing. why don’t u show me?”
Shaila: “ummmm”
Jake: “if u want me then send me a pic”

Nebraskans for Founders’ Values members said the OPS curriculum doesn’t put enough emphasis on abstaining from sex until marriage.
“Is that high expectations? And everybody doesn’t always meet it? Yes, but why do we lower our expectations?” Bentley said.
Founders’ Values members distributed opt-out forms to parents at middle school open houses this fall. They also have held more than two dozen information nights at churches and other locations that highlight what they believe are the most objectionable parts of the OPS curriculum, including a seventh-grade lesson on gender identity and role-play scenarios for 10th-graders. Some of those examples have been removed or modified, while others remain.
“We are sounding the warning bell of the content that’s problematic,” Bentley said.
The group’s efforts have clearly had some success.
By fall, OPS’s central office had received 305 opt-out forms, a much higher number than usual, district officials said. (Thousands of students take the classes each year.) The most opt-outs came from schools in South Omaha and Bellevue.
Opponents did extensive outreach in South Omaha and among Latino parents, who often packed school board meetings and denounced a curriculum they saw as promoting promiscuity and experimentation.
“I never saw opt-out (rates) like this from parents for this reason,” said Spencer-May, the OPS official. “I would see a few in a building, but I would never have imagined there’d be 300 people that said they thought human growth wasn’t OK for their kids to take.”
Next school year, during registration, OPS plans to collect better data on how many students are opting out of human growth and development, and why. Officials said some students, especially high schoolers, opt out to take honors classes or electives that wouldn’t otherwise fit into their schedules.
Kehrberg attributed some of the opt-outs to misinformation in the community. OPS heard from parents who believed that kindergartners would be enrolled in classes or that different sex positions would be taught. (Neither is the case.)
“Some of the comments made were just lewd, things that no adult would do in a classroom or outside of a classroom with children,” Kehrberg said.
South High sophomore Luis Vazquez was among the first OPS students to take the revised course this school year.

Sophomore Greg Hermosillo, 15, fills out a worksheet while teacher James Abueg provides a lesson on bullying during a human growth and development class at Omaha South High on Sept. 30, 2016. (BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD)

Luis said his parents supported the decision to take human growth and development so he could learn more about the physical and emotional changes that happen during the teen years.
“This is around the time you get more freedom,” he said. “We need to know this stuff when we’re starting to date.”
Sophomore Greg Hermosillo, another student in the class, said students generally feel comfortable talking about topics in the class that might normally make them blush. The inclusion of some new issues, like sexual orientation, didn’t faze him.
“Sexual orientation doesn’t matter,” Greg said. “It’s the person who you are that matters. It helps others who are not so informed about it learn how to react to people who are different.”
Their teacher, James Abueg, has taught human growth and development for eight years and was a staunch supporter of the update.
“Having new materials keeps your class fresh, not stale,” he said. “The data is current and new. So many things have changed.”
He invites any extra scrutiny or questions from parents and said he doesn’t anticipate any problems, as long as he sticks to teaching the approved curriculum. He also learned that some LGBT students didn’t feel included in lessons from the previous curriculum.
“I didn’t even think students were being left out,” he said.
joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077; erin.duffy@owh.com, 402-444-1210

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