Saturday, March 25, 2023

Some Maryland parents argue a new health curriculum is unfit for young students


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Parents in some Maryland districts are pushing back against their school boards’ efforts to adopt a state health framework that instructs educators how to teach about gender identity.

The framework broadly outlines how to teach health topics by each grade level; its family life and sexuality guidelines have been the most controversial. Under the guidance, prekindergarten students, for example, are taught to “recognize and respect that people express themselves in different ways.” It further advises school systems to teach kindergartners how to “recognize a range of ways people express their identity and gender.”

While parents can opt their children out of the lessons if they’re in fourth grade or above, prekindergarten to third grade students aren’t given an opt-out option, according to the framework. Some school districts have not yet discussed the framework, but there has been controversy in some of the places that have addressed it.

In those districts, families contend the curriculum is inappropriate for younger students, and argue school systems should allow parents to assert more input into what is being taught to their children. They’ve turned out in droves at school board meetings — most notably in Frederick and Carroll counties — to advocate for local districts to drop the state’s framework.

“Children belong to the parents; not this county, not this state,” a longtime county resident with great-grandchildren in the school system told Carroll County school board members in April. “The government has no right to attempt to replace parents or their decisions regarding what their children learn.” She added after she had offered to pay for textbooks for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to home-school, if the health framework was adopted by the school district.

The discourse mirrors others unfolding across the country as parents, educators and lawmakers have sparred over integrating topics on gender identity and sexuality in education. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a measure banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for K-3 students and imposing stringent limits on what is discussed in higher grade levels. The Parental Rights in Education legislation has been dubbed by state Democrats and LGBTQ activists as the “don’t say gay” bill. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed legislation requiring school districts to notify parents whenever instructional materials include sexually explicit content and provide alternative, non-explicit materials if requested.

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Sex education researchers say the rhetoric used in these disagreements misrepresents what’s actually being taught.

Eva Goldfarb, a professor in public health at Montclair State University who researches sexuality education, said Maryland’s framework is “developmentally and age appropriate.” The gender identity section teaches students noncontroversial topics, like that there are no jobs appropriate for one gender and not another. Curriculums that start the conversation at a younger age have been proven to prevent sexual abuse, create healthier relationships, decrease intimate partner violence and increase empathy, she said.

Maryland’s framework was adopted by the State Board of Education in 2019, school systems have recently started discussing how to integrate it into their lessons plans, and they’ve gotten pushback in the process.

The Maryland State Board did not respond to questions about the framework by deadline.

At a Carroll County school board meeting in April, the curriculum wasn’t on the school board’s agenda, but multiple parents asked the board to oppose adopting it during public comment.

Frederick County’s school board voted to adopt the curriculum in March. It sent the framework to its Family Life Advisory Committee to review and decide which lesson plans would be created, pursuant to normal board protocols, said Brad Young, the president of the school board.

But the board’s initial adoption received vitriol online, and misinformation was quickly spread among family groups, Young said. Daniel Cox, a candidate in the Republican primary for Maryland governor who has earned former president Donald Trump’s endorsement, accused Young online of “misleading children for potential chemical castration and sexualized grooming.”

People flooded the Family Life Advisory Committee meeting, thinking the school board was teaching about “anal sex and gender identity to their preschoolers and kindergartners,” Young said. The meeting spun out of control as parents tried to grab the microphone at a committee meeting during times when there wasn’t designated public comment, he said.

Young explained the curriculum being adopted would be appropriate for elementary students. Once it’s finalized, it would likely teach at the elementary level that families look different — some families have a mom and a dad, some have one mom, and some have two dads — and all of those are OK, he said.

“[The school board’s] job is to set policy for the school system, listen to the community and adopt,” Young said. “And if they would let that process work, I think in the end, people would be fine with the outcome.”

Kris Fair, the executive director of the Frederick Center — a support center for LGBTQ+ individuals, said initially, the committee meeting wasn’t on their radar as a source of potential conflict because the framework was so innocuous. But he came to the meeting and listened to individuals paint it as grooming.

“That language was straight out of the 1970s playbook for how to repress the sexual orientation of teachers in our community,” Fair said. “The word ‘groomer’ was used to vilify and marginalize and harm and, in some cases, kill queer teachers.”

The language was triggering for people in the LGBTQ community, he said. It gradually became more evident the meeting would could be an unsafe environment: A trans teenager took off their trans pride hat, and another person removed their pride cape. The center quickly removed some of the LGBTQ people it invited to the meeting out of a safety concern. Many started crying in the parking lot after the meeting, Fair said.

Since then, the controversy has calmed down, he said. But he said he stresses to people “learning that people exist that aren’t like you is healthy.”

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Attendees at the meeting said they were upset because the curriculum didn’t have an opt-out for all grade levels, and that they’d rather conduct those conversations at home. A slate of four Frederick County school board candidates running on platforms advocating for more parental choice in education, has also argued the school board should resist adopting the state’s framework. Instead, they say, the board should focus on improving schools’ math, social studies, English proficiency and science curriculums, especially due to the nationwide learning loss that happened while schools shifted to virtual instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the candidates on the slate, Nancy Allen, said the state’s health education guidelines were desensitizing children to sexual content and were not aligned with academic standards.

“The influencers behind the framework are influencers who really do not have the best interest of kids at heart,” Allen said. “Their focus is not front and center on each student’s education.”

Meanwhile, Montgomery County Schools, Maryland’s largest district, is scheduled to begin implementing the framework in the upcoming school year. It will start its high school curriculum development this summer, and start phasing the framework into other grade levels over the next few years.

Decisions about the curriculum are still to come in other districts. A spokeswoman from Prince George’s County Public Schools said the school system hadn’t officially adopted the framework, but expected to begin the process soon.

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