Helena’s Revised Health Curriculum: Four Thoughts, One Long Post

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on Tuesday night’s school board meeting about the proposed health curriculum in Helena. The short take: it’s the right choice for our community and our students, reflecting concessions to opponents of the original draft. It deserves the community’s support, but the community deserves a better debate than it has received thus far. The longer version is below, for those of you with quiet (boring) weekends. 🙂

1. The community should be thankful for the efforts of Dr. Messinger, Curriculum Director Teresa Burson and the School Board.

The revised document reflects thoughtfulness and effort that should be appreciated.

Under enormous, often unfair, and occasionally even threatening pressure from members of the community and outside, the Board and Superintendent have been responsive and willing to listen to the concerns of the community. I have no doubt that the 7,000 comments about the curriculum have been read and thoroughly considered.

I watched the Board members listen patiently while speakers attacked them personally, made breathtakingly offensive arguments, and even hinted at violence. Their patience—and willingness to listen to all sides—are reflective of a Board that, while not always right, always takes the time to listen.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I suggested that every member of the Board has behaved so admirably. I’ve been incredibly disappointed by the performance (exactly the right word) offered by the Board’s newest member, Trevor Wilkerson. While I certainly respect his right to oppose and question the curriculum, his behavior at the first session of public comment and his agenda and fear driven approach are not in the best interests of the Board, the schools, or the children the board serves.  I wonder, too, if the Wilkersons might not consider asking their media sponsors at Fox News to stop referring to Mrs. Wilkerson as simply a “concerned parent.” That would seem to be the most honest thing to do.

2. While not a perfect document, the revised document does offer comprehensive health education that is both appropriate for our students and necessary for their health.

I’m disappointed that some changes were made, as Dr. Messinger noted the other night, for no other reason than they were distorted by opponents of the plan.

Specifically, I’m disappointed that the idea that a person can love someone of the same gender was stricken, because that’s simply a fact, and one students need to be made aware of. I wish the revised document would retain the clear language that explains the many activities that are sex, because there is compelling evidence that a lack of knowledge about the potential risks of these behaviors actually encourages young people to engage in them, believing they are less dangerous than vaginal sex. It was age-appropriate; it was critical health information; it was certainly not an endorsement of sexual behavior, and I hope that the Board will reconsider this change.

Those reservations aside, the proposed curriculum is an important document that offers relevant, important health information for our children–information about healthy eating and exercise, emotional and physical health, and yes, sexuality. It’s a responsible document that handles a complex subject with as much sensitivity and information as possible.  Opponents may try to convince the brain trust at Fox News that it sensationalizes sexuality, but the opposite is true. By making students aware of the potential risks of sexual activity and simply by ensuring that all students have medically accurate information, the proposed curriculum better protects their health. Ignoring human sexuality and sexual activity among adolescents is not a plan nor is it the responsible choice; it’s an almost guaranteed way to increase disease, misinformation, and pregnancies.

And it makes clear that harassment, bullying, and hostility are not acceptable at any age. And uses accurate terminology for body parts. Those important changes should be retained.

3. The fact that the crowd at the meeting to learn about the curriculum will be dwarfed by the crowd during public comment says almost everything you need to know about the opponents of the curriculum.

At the last meeting, during which Dr. Messinger explained the curriculum and took questions from the Board,  there were no more than 70 people in the crowd, most of them school district employees and the media. Contrast that with the circus atmosphere of the July meeting and the likely packed house in two weeks.

For all the histrionics about having a seat at the table, opponents to the curriculum certainly didn’t seem too interested in actually learning about what the new document says. It’d be nice to see some informed debate, rather than baseless accusations and fear mongering.

4. Compromising with opponents will probably have been in vain, as they are either using the “debate about curriculum to advance a political agenda or because they simply reject reason as the basis of debate in a democratic society.

The revised document did a number of important things: it cleaned up language, eliminated redundancies, and clarified grade levels, but the most substantive change was the effort to appease critics and reflect their perceptions of our community values. Ultimately, it’s been thinking about these concessions that’s been so frustrating to me in the past week.

The changes were fair, conciliatory, and reasoned. And they won’t matter one bit.

Speeches at the Board Meeting, comments on the Independent Record web site, and the omnipresent appearance of critics from Helena on Fox News have made it clear that no compromise, no change will satisfy them. They will continue to both distort the curriculum and impugn the reputations of the administrative staff and teachers in the Helena School District,  yell about “a gay agenda” and decry imaginary plans to teach sex acts to children no matter what the curriculum says or how teachers teach.

Their worldview is so dogmatic that any curriculum short of language that says “Sex is evil, dirty, and wrong unless engaged in by a man and woman married in a Christian church and only for the purpose of conceiving a child” will be rejected as extremist and LIBERAL. Probably socialistic, too.

I’m still waiting for a real debate from critics. What language would they suggest? Why, if they don’t believe that schools should teach values, do they seem to believe that the imposition of their morality is legitimate?

I’m disappointed because volume is being substituted for discussion, fear for reason, and bigotry for science. I’m disappointed because the community I know is one in which compromise and listening matter more than publicity stunts and distortion. I’m disappointed because I fear this rhetorical excess and illogic will only tear the community farther apart on September 28th.

That compromise will be seen as weakness to be exploited, not an honest effort to work together.

In closing, to any critics of the curriculum who’ve made it this far, please ask yourself a few questions. Do you really believe that any teachers plan to encourage sexual behavior? Undermine your relationship with your children? Destroy the very fabric of American society?

If not, maybe it’s time to tone down the talk about tyranny and sodomy and just try to listen and talk.

In two weeks, the people of Helena—both supporters and critics of the health curriculum—will have the opportunity to show Fox News, the rest of the media, and most importantly, our children, that we can have a debate that’s both reasoned and respectful. Don’t they deserve that?

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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