HELENA - A proposed sex education program that teaches fifth-graders the different ways people have intercourse and first-graders about gay love has infuriated parents and forced the school board to take a closer look at the issue.
Helena's school board meeting was swamped Tuesday night by hundreds of parents and other interested parties. An additional room across the hall was opened and filled to capacity, and the doors were locked to the outside. More than 100 others stood outside the Front Street Learning Center with a sound system so they could listen to the meeting.
The proposed 62-page document covers a broad health and nutrition education program and took two years to draft. But it is the small portion dealing with sexual education that has drawn the ire of many in the community who feel it is being pushed forward despite its obviously controversial nature.
Parents appeared most worried about pieces of the plan that teach first-graders about same-gender relationships, fifth-graders that sexual intercourse includes "vaginal, oral, or anal penetration," and high school students about erotic art. The curriculum would also teach kindergartners anatomical terms such as penis, vagina, breast, nipples, testicles, scrotum and uterus.
"They made this more controversial by adding in all this stuff like same-gender relationships to small children, teaching body parts to kindergartners and teaching erotic art to ninth- through 12th-graders," said Mikal Wilkerson, who has five children in the school system and a husband who sits on the school board. "They even teach about anxiety about sexual performance in high school."
Supporters say the proposed health education curriculum contains honest, science-based information on wellness and allows students to make better decisions.
A handful of gay men spoke in favor of the document, particularly the portion that calls for children to understand that making fun of people by calling them names is disrespectful.
Michael Hand-Synness said when he came out to a close friend at Helena High he started receiving death threats.
"The threats continued to get worse and I was forced to transfer schools for my own safety," he said. "I ended up dropping out after attending all three Helena high schools to try to keep safe."
Hand-Synness said the draft will be a great way to help prevent some of the intolerance that has made its way into the public schools.
The board takes the issue up again next month, and the outrage suggests that members could alter the plan to deal with all the complaints. One resident said parents may have to consider impeachment of board members or a lawsuit if it goes forward.
Marianne Rencher, a lawyer who will have a second-grader and a kindergartner in the school system next year, wants certain aspects of the sex education program taken out, particularly the fifth-grade curriculum about intercourse. She said the rest of the health program could go forward while the sex education is recrafted.
Trustee Terry Beaver said he thinks much in the policy is favorable, but believes the public backlash means they should carve out the sexuality elements and deal with them separately.
"It appears to be a strong divisive issue. I think when the community is that strongly divided we need to take a further look at it," Beaver said.
Beaver said his issue with the plan revolves on whether certain components are being taught too young.
"I don't know that anything needs to be taken out," he said. "Some of it might be age-inappropriate. We are going to have to consider how we teach it and when we teach it."
After the meeting, Superintendent Bruce Messinger said the board will now decide whether more comment will be accepted at a public hearing Aug. 10, and if a final decision will be made at that time.
This story contains information from Helena Independent Record Reporter Alana Listoe.