The reconstituted committee charged by the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education to recommend changes to the district’s Human Growth and Development curriculum to bring it in compliance with a state law passed in June held its first meeting last Wednesday.
During the meeting the 15 members were briefed on the current curriculum in K-12 and what changes would be needed to bring the sex education portions into compliance with Wisconsin Statute sec. 118.019. The committee, made up of six community members, two medical professionals, two members of local clergy, two high school students and three members of the school board, has just five more weeks to recommend the new curriculum to the board. At that time, if the board approves the changes at a meeting in November, parents of district children will have 45 days to comment on the changes.
School Board President Jeff Verdoorn disbanded the original committee at a meeting in early September, saying it had become too politicized during the debate that arose when some parents objected to the changes in the way sex education would be taught to comply with the law. Verdoorn called for the committee to reform with three members of the school board as members and dictated the rest of the makeup of the group to get as broad a cross section of the community as possible.
At that same meeting in September, the board approved changing the curriculum to comply with the updated statute. The board had until September 30 to either adopt the changes or not teach that section of the district health classes during the 2010-11 school year. A group of concerned parents had argued that the board was approving changes to a curriculum before they had been drafted and felt that parents should be the ones educating their children about sex. As part of the changes in the committee makeup, Verdoorn also said that while the community may observe the group’s meetings, public comment would not be allowed at them and also instituted the 45-day comment period on the final curriculum. The change in the comment policy was so the committee would be able to stay on track and not be distracted by some misinformation that is going around the community.
Volunteers who wished to be on the committee were interviewed by school board members Chuck Bolder, Bill Jaeger and vice president Keith Schmelling, who is the committee chairman. The full board approved the new committee members at a October 11 meeting.
Under the old curriculum, MAPS was considered an abstinence only district, meaning information on birth control, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and other sensitive issues could not be taught. While abstinence is still to be emphasized under the new law, a more detailed curriculum is also mandated. Members of the committee were given a letter that the district had received from State School Superintendent Tony Evers spelling out what the new abstinence based curriculum had to include.
At last week’s meeting, the new committee learned what is taught to district students at each grade level. Currently students in kindergarten through second grade are taught protective behaviors, which do not include any HG&D components. Students in grades four and five receive about an hour each on what changes their bodies will go through during puberty. These lessons are strictly along the lines of an anatomy and physiology nature. Students receive about 45 to 90 minutes of more detailed instruction in sixth grade and the bulk of their education on human sexuality in high school, usually as sophomores.
Most of the changes that will be required to be made in the curriculum will take place in the high school component, taught by Scott Arneson. However, sixth grade health teacher Brian Suchocki, recommended that students receive addition instruction in the spring of their eighth grade year. This new class would teach the students about the reproductive system of the opposite sex, and touch on the consequences of poor decisions regarding becoming sexually active. Suchocki also recommended that a list of talking points be sent to the parents of eighth graders so that they can discuss more sensitive information with the children at that time.
MAPS Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Carole Witt Starck told the committee it is critical to close this gap in the student’s education “before the highly social summer between middle school and high school.”
Arneson, who has also taught the puberty component of the elementary portion of the curriculum to boys for the last 10 years, said the elementary portion of the curriculum will not have to change, since that covers the changes that students will experience to their bodies as they enter puberty. Most of what he teaches deals with hygiene, but there is a video that cover the anatomy portion of the class.
“The videos are concise and to the point,” Arneson said. “I wouldn’t change the videos.”
The students are also given a handout that they are supposed to take home to their parents.
“This isn’t for the playground or lunch line, I want them to show it to their parents,” Arneson told the committee. “I tell them I know you won’t be comfortable talking about it with them but it is important that you do.”
The female portion of the puberty lesson is taught by a nurse from the Lincoln County Health Department.
After Suchocki went through what is taught at the middle school to sixth graders, (he teaches the boys’ portion while a female teacher teaches the girls’ portion) he said that there has been times he has felt uncomfortable teaching the subject because of the sensitive nature. He said it is a balancing act between teaching what the children need to know and what the policy mandates.
“It’s always a balancing act,” he said. “What some parents would consider offensive others would not.”
He added that he went to a Catholic school system and was taught more about sex than what MAPS students received under the current curriculum.
Witt Starck said that not teaching the students that the consequences of what they might consider a harmless action which could have potential legal consequences was irresponsible.
“Boys don’t realize that when they walk down the hallway and lovingly slap a girl on the butt that that is 3rd degree sexual assault,” she said. “In the past, we couldn’t teach them that.”
Arneson told the committee that he is comfortable teaching the curriculum that is mandated by the new law, saying this is information the students need to know.
“It’s a shame that there isn’t an operator’s manual for the human body,” Arneson said. “With what is available on the Internet and what they can show now on T.V., they really need more and correct information.”
The committee will start grappling with the nuts and bolts of the needed changes to the curriculum this Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the MAPS Central Office. It will meet weekly at the same time to draft the curriculum it will present to the school board next month.