Debate gets heated as nearly 100 people speak on health education standards

LINCOLN, Neb. – The fight over the Nebraska Department of Education’s proposed health education standards continued on Friday at a public hearing, with many in the audience arguing that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction with the document’s second draft.

"You basically made a whole group of Nebraska youth feel unseen," said Ruby Kinzie, a high school senior from Wayne, who identifies as LGBTQ+.

The second draft of the standards removed most references to gender and sexual identity after many expressed opposition to the standards in town halls and political rallies across the state.

"Comprehensive sex education is suicide prevention," Eric Reiter, another speaker who identifies as LGBTQ+, told board members.

Meanwhile, many in the audience argued that the revisions didn’t go far enough, arguing that the standards should be removed altogether and that parents should be the ones teaching such topics.

"It's just a water-downed version of draft number one," said Heather Hall of Roca, a parent whose children attend public schools.

While many of the references to gender and sexual identity have been removed, one section contains a brief reference to the topic.

The hearing turned into a marathon session, with 119 people signing up to speak, though some left before their turn. Each person was allotted two minutes of speaking time.

Among the nearly 100 members of the public who spoke was State Sen. Megan Hunt, who argued that parents will have the option to homeschool their children and can opt out of the standards if they are adopted. 

"Any concerns about parental control are not valid," Hunt said.

Also among the large group in attendance was a busload of people from the organization Nebraskans for Founders' Values, which traveled in from Kearney. Many from that group wore red bandanas while opposing the proposed standards. Some in attendance compared the group to Nazis while referencing a recent viral photo that appeared to show a banner that had the group's name and a quote from Adolf Hitler.

After public comments, the event concluded with remarks from each board member.

Patti Gubbels, of Norfolk, was among the board members to speak after the public feedback.

“I believe first and foremost that education needs to prepare, in Nebraska, Nebraska’s children to have the essential skills they need in order to be successful individuals,” Gubbels said. “I think that includes health education, but I am not certain that I believe comprehensive sex ed needs to be part of health education.”

Board member Jacquelyn Morrison while expressing much of her Omaha constituency’s support for LGBTQ+ language in the standards, conveyed her trepidation in supporting the standards over concerns for the manner in which the proposals had been rolled out.

“My frustration is not with the people who are courageous enough to come here today and speak out about how they feel,” Morrison said. “I applaud everyone who came here, no matter what side of the aisle they are on. My frustration has been with this process and the lack of transparency among the Department of Education and this board.”

Fellow board member Maureen Nickels compared the debate to a pancake, stating that one side has been heard through much of the debate since the initial draft was release, but that those supporting the previous draft of the standards have largely been unheard.

“I want to represent all students,” Nickels said.

Nickels, who represents part of central Nebraska, said religion has driven a lot of the debate, even being brought up by those in opposition of the proposed standards.

“I feel like I’m a pretty good Catholic,” Nickels said. “I’ve been told numerous times in emails, ‘I see that you’re a Catholic, that you attend Blessed Sacrament. If you pass these standards, you are a sinner and shame on you.’”

Nickels said her own faith is ultimately inconsequential, however.

“I believe in church and state being separated. And I thought that’s what the Constitution says…So with my Catholic religion, I do try to remain very neutral because I have to represent all kids.”

The standards, which have not yet been approved by the board, could be voluntarily adopted by local school districts. More than 40 school districts have already said they would not adopt them.

This is the first time the Nebraska Department of Education has attempted to draft health education standards, which it is not required to do.

The full video of the meeting can be found here.