When the discussion turned to sex, a school principal from western Nebraska felt uneasy.
He had volunteered to be a part of a group of educators writing health education standards for Nebraska schools, but what was being proposed at a meeting of the group caused him to speak up.
“I can’t take this back to (my district),” he recalled saying. “I’ll be on the first train outta there.”
Despite his early concern, the Nebraska Department of Education moved forward with developing health and sex education standards that were both comprehensive in scope and inclusive of diverse genders and sexual orientations. Kindergartners, for example, were to learn about “cohabitating” and same-gender families. First graders were to learn about gender identity and gender stereotypes, and older kids about anal, oral and vaginal sex.
When the initial draft became public last March, reaction from Nebraskans was swift, overwhelming and lopsided.
Thousands of emails poured in describing the initial draft in the harshest terms:
“Non-scientific, appalling, ghastly, radical.”
“Age-inappropriate, child abuse, ideological, immoral.”
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Ninety percent of the input received by the education department opposed the standards, according to an analysis of emails and survey responses reviewed by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The human growth and development section of the draft, which proposed teaching children about gender identity and sexual orientation, drew a “record level of feedback,” Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt wrote in a March 27 email to Nebraska State Board of Education members, his cabinet and staff.
The public opposition, Blomstedt wrote, had left the board and employees “feeling a little back on our heels.”
He expressed optimism, however, that there was a path forward, reminding them that “the standards are intended to be a community consensus of what we teach children.”
That consensus never materialized.
After nearly six months of relentless opposition that overwhelmed advocates of the proposed standards, state board members halted development of the standards Sept. 3.
The only consensus now is that the writing process failed to produce standards that all Nebraskans would accept.
Why it failed depends on whom you ask.
Critics say the writers of the human growth and development portion sought to implement standards that reflected their own ideology rather than opening the writing process to a more diverse array of Nebraskans.
They say department employees were dismissive of conservative viewpoints, rejecting a suggestion to create standards that emphasized abstinence, and declining offers from the Nebraska Catholic Conference to provide input before the first draft went public.
Even when the state education department revised the draft and stripped out many of the sex-related standards, opponents said it was too little, too late for them to get behind because they had lost faith in the process.
Advocates say experts — who supported the standards and could have educated the public on the need and appropriateness of them — were drowned out by opponents, including Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. Those opponents called for “scrapping” the sex ed topics in the standards.
Supporters were discouraged by the purging of most LGBTQ references from the second draft and wanted them restored in a third draft, which was never attempted.
“I have to believe that the department did what they felt was correct with the process when they initially started with all this,” said Maureen Nickels of Chapman, Nebraska, president of the state education board. “They followed the same process, as I understand, that they did with all the other standards. Did it work? Did the process work as well with these standards as they did with all the others? No.”
The board and department previously developed standards in English language arts, science and other academic subjects, but this was their first try at health standards.
Opponents say the process was never intended to bring about consensus.
“I think the process didn’t work because it was a couple of people who just took it upon themselves to create these standards to their political will,” said Sue Greenwald, one of the leaders of the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition. “And they didn’t really care what anybody else wanted or thought.”
The coalition leaders point to education board member Deb Neary of Omaha as contributing to the failure.
They allege that emails and text messages they obtained via a public records request show that Neary overstepped her bounds as a policymaker and behaved behind the scenes as an advocate to influence the creation of the standards.
The emails show Neary urged the department to use an advocate of comprehensive sex education, employed by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, as an adviser in the standards process and also arranged to invite the standards writers and her board colleagues to an invitation-only workshop with a national sex ed advocate.
Neary denies involvement in writing the standards and says her actions were appropriate for a board member. She said her aim was to create standards that would prepare “our students to be successful in the complex world that they will graduate into.”
Neary blames Ricketts, who she says “completely hijacked” the process.
She said the adoption of the standards could have been a routine process of listening to parents and experts, but “we had a political leader going around the state creating these town halls and perpetuating at times false information.”
“There was a lot of misinformation, calling these mandates, for example,” she said.
Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage rejects that accusation.
“From the very beginning, Gov. Ricketts correctly pointed out that the health education standards were politicized and that key mainstream stakeholders had been cut out of the process,” he said.
Gage said the emails and texts confirm that Neary “enlisted the help of radical left-wing activists in writing curriculum standards for our kids.”
The emails and texts, reviewed by The World-Herald, as well as interviews, provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the writing and review process that was initiated in 2019, as well as the firestorm that erupted after the first draft went public.
The initial draft drew opposition from a majority of Nebraska state senators, family and Catholic advocates and 47 school districts, primarily for its approach to teaching Nebraska children about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The proposed standards sparked creation of the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition, which grew to more than 20,000 Facebook members.
Although the department listed 22 educators on the writing team, not all were involved in writing the human growth and development portion of the standards that went into the initial draft.
The writers were assigned, according to their expertise and experience, to write various topics in the health standards, which addressed areas from nutrition and drug abuse to safety and disease prevention.
The school principal from western Nebraska, who spoke on the condition of not being named, said he didn’t write the human growth and development standards.
He said that when he expressed concern about the proposed content, department staff said that districts wouldn’t have to adopt the standards.
Because state lawmakers did not direct the board or department to write health standards, local schools would not have been required to adopt them. Typically, schools allow parents to opt their kids out of health classes.
According to his recollection, when he spoke up, state education department staff said he needed to “think globally,” telling him: “You have to think statewide. You have to think western Nebraska to eastern Nebraska, and what’s best for all the kids.”
Early in the process, education department staff put the writers through equity training.
According to documents, the training asserted that all students deserve to have curricula — what’s taught in school — that mirror their own experience, “thus validating it in the public world of school.”
The training was aimed at addressing bias and avoiding racially based pitfalls and stereotypes. It encouraged “critical reflection” by the writers to determine whether standards and curricular materials “reflect educational equity.”
“It felt like they were lecturing us,” the principal said, that “we all were narrow-minded and we needed to open our minds up and we need to look at things differently.”
He said the writers looked at standards from several other states, and at the National Sex Education Standards, which he described as “graphic.”
“Honestly, I think whoever wrote the human growth and development for Nebraska just copied it word-for-word from that book,” he said.
The principal said the pandemic hurt the writing process because the people involved had to communicate remotely.
Carol Tucker, a nurse on the writing team, said she worked on the portion of the standards that dealt with preventing infectious disease.
Tucker said she believes “a lot of ‘politically correct’ thinking went into the process.”
“There were teachers and administrators who objected on the basis that their communities would object to the standards as they were proposed,” she said. “Unfortunately, the politically correct thinkers were on the final committee and basically ignored the input of any who didn’t agree with them.”
After the draft went public, Kayla Makovicka, a writer whose topic was injury prevention and safety, wrote an email March 31 to Lacey Peters, the department’s health education and physical education specialist who worked with the writers.
Makovicka expressed concern about the human growth and development portion.
She wrote that she didn’t “recall ever talking about these in any of our meetings or getting a clear look at what was going to be involved.”
She wrote she was “having a hard time with my name sitting behind these.” While proud of the work she did, she wrote “this has made me ill since being released.”
David Jespersen, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Education, told The World-Herald that the entire writing group met several times to talk over the document as a whole.
All members had access to the full drafts, he said. They had several opportunities to express their concerns or their approval either in meetings or by email, he said.
Jespersen said that although there was no “vote” of all the writers to approve the final draft, their input was taken into consideration in crafting the final drafts.
Although some writers objected, he said, clearly other people “signed off on it and said it was a good idea.”
He said a preliminary draft was shared with subject-matter experts who were advising the process, and a “subset” of the writing team, including education department staff, used the feedback to make changes before the release of the initial draft.
Emails show that, in September 2019, Neary attempted to get her preferred experts on the writing team and told Blomstedt and another employee that she was “very disappointed” when that didn’t happen. Neary urged them to include her experts “somehow,” and staff subsequently added some of them as subject-matter experts to the advisory group.
Among them was Lisa Schulze, education and training manager for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, who formerly worked as an educator for Planned Parenthood.
In an interview, Neary told The World-Herald that she had reached out to organizations and individuals, like the Women’s Fund, who she trusted and who could suggest Nebraskans who would bring expertise and experience to writing the standards.
She said Schulze “probably was the most knowledgeable person in Nebraska on this topic.” She noted that Schulze was one of two people in Nebraska who has certification from the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
Schulze was not available for an interview, but Women’s Fund executive director Jo Giles said it was reasonable to use her as an adviser.
She said part of the work of the Women’s Fund is to provide policymakers with information.
The emails show that Schulze provided department employees with resources, including a set of national standards developed by private advocacy groups that she described as the “gold standard” of health standards.
Early in 2020, Neary arranged to invite members of the writing and advisory groups and the state education board to Omaha to attend a private, invitation-only workshop with Jennifer Driver, national policy director with the advocacy group SIECUS, who co-authored the National Sex Education Standards.
Those standards, some of which were incorporated into the first draft of the Nebraska standards, are comprehensive and inclusive. The standards reflect progressive views on gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and sexual identity.
The workshop was sponsored by the Women’s Fund of Omaha.
Neary, in an email, said she could get money to cover fees for the workshop attendance and offered to cover mileage herself or have a donor cover it. An email shows the Nebraska State Education Association and its nonprofit entity, Leading Excellence and Robust Networks, subsequently offered to cover the mileage.
Maddie Fennell, the association’s executive director, told The World-Herald that the association did not end up paying the mileage for any attendees.
In one email, Neary wrote the event would be a “tremendous opportunity to get up to speed on the trends across the country so we can understand best practices.”
Neary further wrote that: “I hope you understand that I am not advocating for any positions within the standards.”
Board president Nickels said she was OK with Neary arranging the invitations.
“I do not believe that she had any motive to try to sway us into thinking one way or another,” she said. “I believe her whole intent was for us to understand better various issues in the health, sex education world. And I’m glad I attended that meeting.”
Giles, with the Women’s Fund, told The World-Herald that Driver was already scheduled to be in Omaha for a conference with the group’s community partners.
“In our work, we look to national experts to inform best practices,” she said. “And this was just another example of bringing that expertise to our state for our community partners and individuals who are interested to learn.”
She said it was important for the Women’s Fund “to be part of the conversation around comprehensive sex education.”
“We care about young people across our state, and we know that young people need and want comprehensive sex education,” she said.
The writers eventually borrowed word-for-word more than a dozen standards from the national set, including some of the more controversial items such as teaching first graders to define gender, gender identity and gender-role stereotypes. Other standards from the national set were added with minor wording changes.
Six months before the first draft was released, a representative of Nebraska Catholics asked to meet with department staffers overseeing the standards development.
Jeremy Ekeler, associate director of education with the Nebraska Catholic Conference, wrote an email on Aug. 12, 2020, requesting a meeting.
“I’d like to talk about that process and see if we can be of any assistance in this or other areas,” he wrote.
They did meet, eventually, after some miscommunication and delay.
At one point, a state education department staffer wrote to a colleague: “Jeremy is coming on pretty strong,” typing a sad-face emoji.
The staffer wrote back: “I know. I really think they want to advocate for abstinence only education as well as gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.; but that is only my assumption.”
Ekeler said he met on Sept. 14, 2020, with two staffers and asked to see the preliminary draft under development and a list of the advisers. He said his requests were denied.
He said he was told that only advisory members were allowed to see the preliminary draft.
He said he subsequently sent the state education department a list of recommended experts. He said he was told his suggested advisers would not be included unless there was an opening. They were not contacted, he said.
In an interview with The World-Herald, Ekeler said he provided state education department staff with the names of multiple people who believed in character formation, abstinence and the role of parents.
Among those suggested were a Catholic school administrator, two parents with a background in the medical field, a sex education educator and a priest, he said.
Ekeler said there are 400,000 Catholics in Nebraska, many of whom send their children to public schools.
“To me it’s sad that NDE has been preaching inclusion and diversity and then in practice they exclude anyone who doesn’t fit with their agenda,” he said.
Schulze, meantime, as an adviser was allowed to review the draft.
In a Sept. 20, 2020, email, she thanked the staff for “the honor and opportunity” to review the draft, saying she was impressed with it and would suggest only minor changes.
“It is clear to me that you and your committee worked diligently to align these standards with what supports a student’s well-being and academic success,” she wrote. “They closely align with the 2020 National Standards for Sex Education and are very promising for a comprehensive health approach.”
One staffer wrote to another that Schulze had provided a “nice endorsement!”
“I (sic) sure that the corrections that Lisa has to offer will be the polar opposite to Jeremy?” followed by a smiling emoji.
The other staffer wrote back, “Ha, yes, I am sure.”
In November 2020, emailers were suggesting to Blomstedt and the board members that Nebraska consider writing standards like Texas. The Texas State Board of Education had updated its standards last November and emphasized abstinence as the preferred and 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The Texas standards don’t mention gender identity or sexual orientation.
Neary wrote to Schulze: “I keep receiving this same email from a handful of constituents. These folks (not even sure they are constituents) want us to adapt the Texas template below. This kind of stuff makes my head want to explode.”
One state education department staffer, on hearing that Texas standards were being suggested, wrote: “Holy Crap! ... Better to have no state standards than misinformed standards.”
When the first draft of the standards drew a slew of public criticism, Schulze provided the department with a fact sheet and talking points to defend the draft, and the department forwarded those to the board.
Neary and Schulze discussed efforts to push back against the opponents. Schulze texted that she was lining up speakers to advocate for the standards at state board meetings and that the Women’s Fund had hired four “social media influencers.”
Privately Neary expressed her frustration to a Women’s Fund administrator that board members were giving too much weight to public comments and not to the experts.
“I am very disappointed that Ryan (Foor, state board relations and rules and regulations officer) and Maureen (Nickels, board president) see this as a ‘both sides’ need to be presented all the time,” Neary wrote. “It is irresponsible in my opinion when one of the sides is based in science and fact and the other is based in religion.”
She explained in an interview with The World-Herald that those comments arose from her concern that some public comments were inaccurate.
Emails show some people rejected the initial draft on religious grounds. Much criticism focused on the gender-identity standards in the initial draft and questioned introducing such concepts in early elementary grades. Many emails expressed a common theme that the standards being proposed were not representative of the whole state.
One emailer wrote to the education commissioner and to board member Robin Stevens of Gothenburg, who represents the western half of Nebraska.
“These standards have led us to ask ourselves if the western half of the state is getting fair representation in the department of education,” the writer said. “What can be done so that future such committees that develop standards have a better representation of the culture and values of the majority of Nebraska?”
With statewide health standards postponed indefinitely, schools will continue to write their own.
Blomstedt said the department “absolutely” could have done some things differently to ensure a fair process.
He said the public had ample chance to weigh in once it was released, and it did.
“The process worked at least on that front, but it didn’t work to actually arrive at a set of standards that people could accept across the state, necessarily,” he said. “That’s kind of the next step, we have to examine that, with a better approach to going forward.”
On Friday, several members of the state education board indicated they want the board to conduct a review of the process.
Omaha board member Jacquelyn Morrison said the department needs a process that’s written and transparent — and works.
“We have calls for our resignation,” Morrison said. “We have the governor upset with us, the Legislature upset with us, superintendents upset with us. And eventually, because the process was so tumultuous, we stopped the process. So to say the process that we had is working, or it worked or it works, I think is disingenuous.”