With a large crowd of onlookers, mostly opposed to the action, the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education approved changes to the district’s Human Growth and Development (HG&D) curriculum at a meeting last Monday evening at the high school library.
Prior to the public comment period, Board President Jeff Verdoorn said that while the board recognizes that it would be impossible to make everyone happy with the vote, the deadline for opting the district out of the instruction for this school year had already passed. The board had voted in September to incorporate the mandates of a revised state statute passed earlier this year requiring teaching of a comprehensive curriculum in HG&D.
Verdoorn said the board was attempting to make the best collective decision based on what the members thought was in the best interest of all students.
“Just because certain board members do not agree with your position, it does not mean we have not listened. It simply means that we do not agree,” Verdoorn said.
He added that some demands placed on the board by opponents to the curriculum during the public comment period at the last meeting “bordered on bullying.” He added that the board itself was divided on the issue but it has to respect the decisions of the majority while still respecting the personal positions of those who opposed the vote.
Verdoorn then polled the board on limiting comments to three minutes per speaker on the subject during public comment. He said the board had been opposed to enforcing this limit in the past on the HG&D topic in the issue of fairness. However, the opponents to the new curriculum had repeatedly asked that the board reverse course, something it could not due under state statute that required the district either agree to the new course requirements by Sept. 30 or send a legal notice to all parents in the district saying it was opting out.
“I would ask that everyone wanting to speak tonight regarding not teaching HG&D please save your comments until next August when the board will have the opportunity to discuss opting out as a whole again,” Verdoorn said. “The district has no latitude to opt out for the entire district at this point.”
Five community members spoke out against the curriculum, citing objections to the influence of Planned Parenthood in the drafting of the revised statute, inclusion of a definition of abortion, undermines parental authority and that the proposed changes were biased against Christians and infringed on the First Amendment Rights of the teachers and students.
When the committee of community members, board members and administrators chartered by the board to recommend changes to the curriculum that would bring MAPS into compliance with the statute were brought forward to make their recommendations, they were also allowed to weigh in on the proposal. Although most spoke in favor of the changes, one person who had repeatedly sought to make more narrow changes voiced his objections to some components. He said the approved videos and PowerPoint slides, although the same ones that had been used in the past, would “entice our children to view pornography.” He also said he felt the new curriculum would promote homosexuality without explaining the risks of such “behavior.” He also felt that it would mean easier access to contraceptives for MAPS students, which would promote premarital sex.
Board Vice President Keith Schmelling, who chaired the committee, pointed out that nobody teaching the HG&D courses would be dispensing contraceptives nor telling students where they could obtain them or abortions. It was also repeatedly stated during the presentation that abstinence would be repeatedly stressed during the instruction.
Board member Loretta Baughan brought up numerous objections to the new curriculum, seeking to have the sections either modified or removed. Her major objection was the inclusion of a textbook definition of abortion – both spontaneous as in miscarriages as well as medically induced – in the high school level, which is taught as part of the required health class all students must take.
“Abortion is not required and I would like to see that removed entirely,” Baughan said to applause from the audience.
She added that if students bring up the subject during class they should be referred to their parents. The two paragraph definition, which is in the textbook currently used to teach the health course, was specifically approved by the committee as the only mention of the subject the teacher of the course can make.
Baughan also said that the inclusion of the video “The Miracle of Life” in the curriculum was a direct violation of Christian beliefs because it specifically mentions evolution in it.
As Baughan continued with her lists of objections, board member Brad Kanitz finally told her “as a parent, I have no objection to that,” to the last few points she raised.
The board then voted 7-2 to approve the committee’s recommended changes to the curriculum, with Baughan and Jen Seliger casting the lone nay votes. The curriculum will be available for inspection by community members for 45 days before it is taught for the first time starting in January. Parents also have the option of removing their children from the HG&D portions of the classes at the levels it will be taught at. Although not required to by statute, the board approved a form that parents can use for that purpose as part of the curriculum recommendation.
Students whose parents opt them out of the HG&D portions of the high school health class will be required to do research on a health related topic and present a report to the teacher to take the place of the class time they miss.