'If this is not passed, students will die'
On Monday, May 2, about 100 community members crowded the West Linn-Wilsonville School Board room to share their thoughts on the proposed Comprehensive Sexuality Education Plan.
After about 40 individual testimonies during public comment expressing their approval or concerns with the updated curriculum, the school board came to a 4-1 vote and adopted the curriculum with adjustments to the supplementary lessons for secondary students.
The district will begin providing professional development for educators this spring to help them understand the new curriculum and design supplementary lessons for the sixth-to-12th graders.
How the curriculum was formed
In 2016, Oregon adopted new health and wellness curriculum standards that each school district must follow and update every two years. The standards were set up to expand Oregon student's knowledge on sexual health, which covers areas including body image, gender roles, relationships and communication.
According to Oregon Health's Authority's Student Health Survey, 8% of Oregon students are transgender, gender-expansive or questioning.
"Young people begin to understand their gender as early as kindergarten, or even before. It is critical that all students, regardless of gender, feel safe, seen and affirmed in school," said ODE communications director Marc Siegel said to Pamplin Media Group in a prior interview.
Further, multiple studies show that teaching about various differences and empathy works to prevent violence and bullying.
In 2019, the district formed its first Health and Sexuality Task Force, made up of both parents and staff, to aid in selecting and revising the district curriculum in accordance with the standards and Oregon Senate bills, as well as state revised statutes and administrative rules. The updated guidelines from the task force prioritized posting additional lessons for students, "normalizing" opting out of certain topics and eliminating personal experience.
The 2022 task force and district staff settled on a set of lesson plans and then held an input session for parents to share their feedback before the curriculum was looked at and approved by the school board.
On April 25, the school district invited parents to discuss the proposed curriculum. Families crowded the cafeteria at Meridian Creek Middle School and were split into small groups where they looked over lesson places for each grade level.
In feedback, community members' responses to the proposed curriculum varied. One commenter said: "I just want all students to feel seen, heard and safe. This is a great start to being inclusive and teaching tolerance." Another asked that the district remove the "gender ideology" as it would be confusing for students.
The district collected feedback, then made changes to the proposed curriculum like eliminating activities that taught primary school students about different gender identities. The district also added language to the guideline about grouping students who opt-out of lessons so no one is singled out, while also rewriting the opt-out letter for clarity to ensure parents can provide information about their preferences.
Sample of the proposed curriculum
The K-5 curriculum is pulled from "The Great Body Shop," which is a nationally recognized entity that provides students with comprehensive health education through various age-appropriate activities and lesson plans.
Some of the topics taught to future WL-WV students include basic hygiene, consent, human growth and puberty. Most of the curriculum centers around health.
Boys and girls will continue to be split up to watch videos that explain the anatomy of different genders. The district said that it will evaluate the process later and assess whether there is a need to present more inclusive options, which could result in all students watching both videos. Assistant Superintendent Barb Soisson said the videos are fairly similar to one another.
The curriculum that was proposed for middle and high school students was to be pulled from various resources like Goodheart-Wilcox's Comprehensive Health plan and "Rights, Respect, Responsibility," a curriculum from Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization and advocacy group dedicated to sexuality education.
Sixth to eighth graders would learn the basics of the reproductive system, and understanding and preventing transmitted diseases. High schoolers would learn all of that plus abuse prevention and understanding what rights they have with their sexual and reproductive health.
None of the lessons would include any sort of role-play, demonstration or discussions on personal experiences. Families will be able to opt their children out of certain topics and lessons.
Community shares thoughts
Community feedback was only slotted for 45 minutes of the May 2 board meeting, but as the time neared the end of the agenda item, the board approved a motion to extend the conversation until all community members had a chance to speak.
For another hour and a half, parents, students and residents from outside the school district boundaries spoke either sharing their support or opposition to the proposed curriculum.
Some commenters raised concern that the curriculum was not medically accurate or age appropriate. Others said there was too much wiggle room in the lesson plans for teachers to intervene independently on how to teach these sensitive topics.
Some parents expressed that they did not approve of the curriculum teaching younger students that gender goes beyond male and female, as it would create confusion. Others said that although they were not necessarily opposed to the curriculum, they planned to opt their children out of certain lessons and did not want them to be singled out.
Yet, many commenters expressed their strong approval of the curriculum and cited lived experience.
A statistic shared by many was that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than any other group their age, according to youth.gov. Forty-two percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021, and more than half identified as transgender or nonbinary. During multiple testimonials, community members said the curriculum could save lives in the school district.
A West Linn resident and 2017 graduate of West Linn High School said they had to pursue a minor in gender, queer and sexuality in college to understand parts of their sexuality and identity.
"I spent 13 years in this district and never was I talked to or instructed about my sexuality," the former student said. "I hated myself so much and thought I was better off dead until I was able to learn (this type of curriculum)."
A West Linn resident and father of a transgender child said the curriculum is much needed to create an inclusive and welcoming learning environment for people like his child.
"I understand that some of the things they are proposing to teach make some people uncomfortable. But I will tell you right now that the ignorance that is generated by not teaching these things is killing people," he said.
His child later echoed the stories their father told and said that some children are not as lucky to have such a supportive family.
"If this comprehensive sex education is not passed, students will die because of it," they said. "I have seen it before. We will see it again."
Other community members showed support for the curriculum stating that even though neither they nor their children are part of the LGBTQ+ community, they want others to feel welcomed and to broaden their kid's scope on different identities.
"I want my child to learn that his experience is not the only experience …I want my child to hear a million times that we respect others' identities," said one community member.
The board was presented with two options by Soisson: to approve the plan as it was or to approve the plan with direction to staff for making changes to part of the curriculum.
Board Chair Chelsea King and board member Kristen Wyatt were in support of the curriculum as it stood.
King said that she supported the curriculum because she believed students should learn about differences between one another. She referenced how she has been given "a billion messages" since the day she was born that her gender identity and sexual orientation were the norms, and that students need to see themselves represented in textbooks.
"I support the standards, and I support the lessons — it's important," King said. "We have to try to figure out a way to talk about these things in a way that honors and respects differences, and to really see each other and hear each other, even if it's hard."
Wyatt was also in favor of the curriculum as it was and said the district should not waste any more time.
"At this point, time is of the essence, and why would we go through the effort to develop a separate curriculum if we feel really good about the inclusion that we're seeing in (this curriculum)," she said.
However, some board members had concerns about aspects of the proposed materials.
Vice Chair Christy Thompson said she was in support of the Great Body Shop lessons taught to primary students but was not in favor of the secondary curriculum as it was coming from an interest group, Advocates for Youth.
One of her concerns was that in one of the lessons it encouraged students to find "credible, medically accurate resources" about puberty growth through governmental organizations and shy away from nonprofit organizations.
Other concerns were that the teacher's guide was not neutral and "value-free."
"It instructs teachers to communicate the organization's values to students. This sounds like indoctrination, not education," said Thompson.
Board member Louis Taylor said that he did not want to go back on a prior "promise" made by the former school board and wanted to continue building bridges with the community rather than burning ones down.
During the 2019 adoption process, the then-school board vowed to the community that it would not use any sexual health curriculum that was produced by a nonprofit or interest group. As Advocates for Youth is an advocacy group, this would be breaking the promise. The curriculum by the nonprofit was selected as there were limited options available to school districts in Oregon, according to Soisson.
"My thing is I'm looking to build a bridge with our community. If we approve something that puts us in conflict with a promise that we've already made, that builds more distrust," said Taylor.
But most of the board members' concerns were focused on the nonprofit itself rather than the lesson plans it provided.
Board member Kelly Sloop said the focus of the curriculum is on the health and safety of students. She raised some "red flags" about Advocates for Youth, like that you needed to eliminate safety filters on your computer before watching any videos on the website. The organization also produces a lot of activism on topics like abortion and defunding the police, she added.
After a bit more dialogue, the board members decided they were in approval of the K-5 curriculum but that the district should continue working with the current task force to vet new supplementary lessons for secondary students in time for the fall term.
Thompson voted no due to a lack of "clarity" on the action. But as it was a majority ruling, the motion carried.
Courtney Vaughn contributed reporting to this story.
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