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Senate passes sex education bill

Updated March 18 – The Senate Monday voted 20-15 to pass the comprehensive sex education bill.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

The vote came after 45 minutes of discussion that consisted primarily of Republican senators coming to the microphone to oppose the bill, mostly on moral grounds. The vote fell along party lines, with majority Democrats backing the bill. (House passage of the bill also was along party lines.)

Here’s a sampling of some of the opposition comments:

“This isn’t about parents teaching their children, this is about the state taking over the role of parents. … There is no room for teaching solid moral values. … What about staying morally pure? … Have we become so jaded as to right and wrong?” – Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud

“We have forgotten what morality is. … Sexual activity is a sacred thing between a man and a woman after marriage. … [The bill has] “an agenda to have a free-flowing sexual society. We’ve seen where that’s got us in the last 30 years.” – Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley

“For so many years we have been taking power away from the family. … We can’t even discipline our children in the way we think appropriate. … We can’t even have our kids work on the farm anymore.” – Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins

“I think sex education is appropriate … but I think this goes too far. … I think the family is the best place for these kinds of conversation to happen.” Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango

The measure returns to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

Text of March 15 story follows.

The comprehensive sex education bill has passed its first floor test in Senate after a long debate that featured discussion of body parts, sexual diseases, agency infighting, government tyranny and teen psychology.

The debate was part of what turned out to be a long, ideological day at the Capitol Friday, during which both houses had protracted debates over gun-control legislation and the House wrangled over abortion.

The sex-education measure, House Bill 13-1081, has been controversial every step of the way since it had its first, six-hour hearing in a House committee on Feb. 7.

The bill wouldn’t impose any uniform new sex ed requirements on Colorado schools nor override existing state content standards on health education. Rather, it would create a new grant program, to be funded with expected federal and private funds, within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Schools that wanted grants would have to abide by standards set in the bill for “age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, and comprehensive human sexuality education.”

Prime sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, noted that teen pregnancies and some sexually transmitted infections are down in Colorado, but “this is still a very significant issue in our state,” with 15 babies born to teen moms in Colorado every day. “That’s preventable” with better sex education, she said.

Critics of the bill, primarily conservative Republicans, have several objections:

Abstinence: The chief critic of the bill was Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who criticized a health department report on teen sexual health for slighting abstinence. “My deep suspicion is this is about anything but abstinence,” Lundberg said. Democrats, with some Republican votes, added an amendment that beefed up language about the importance of abstinence.

Parental involvement: The House amended the bill to require the health department to appoint a parent to the advisory committee that will oversee the program. Lundberg tried various amendments that would have required the State Board of Education to appoint two parents to the panel, but those changes were rebuffed.

Big government: “I am the parent here, not this Senate, not the department of health, not the Department of Education. … It’s none of your business. Stay out of my family’s life,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. Lundberg grumbled about “busybody social engineering of everybody’s life.”

Homosexuality: The bill specifies that sex education should be sensitive to the needs of gay and lesbian students, which has made some Republicans uncomfortable. Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, complained, “This is not about sex education, this is about an agenda of the left to promote gay and lesbian sex education.”

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, responded to all the criticism by saying, “I’m pretty sad that this bill is being perceived as a radical bill … or promotion of unusual sexual practices. … I would think we would want some medically based information. Many people believe we shouldn’t talk about sex in school or that we can just tell kids not to have sex and they won’t. That’s not reality.”

The bill also has a subtext of agency infighting. The State Board of Education recently voted to oppose the bill and sent a letter to every senator.

Lundberg repeatedly hammered the point that CDE, not the health department, should run the program. Todd replied that CDE would have a seat on the advisory board and that the bill doesn’t touch state health content standards.

SBE members complained about the bill during a meeting earlier in the week. “We’ve been chasing this from behind from the beginning,” said chair Paul Lundeen of Monument. He said the move to take CDE out of the process was a “strategic” one by others.

The Senate will have to take a final recorded vote on the bill before it can return to the House for consideration of amendments.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.