Omaha Public Schools officials wanted to hold a community meeting last week to announce a new – optional – comprehensive sex education class being offered. They didn't expect fireworks.
The previous Omaha Public Schools (OPS) meeting had attracted only about 150 parents. Last week, school officials were greeted by a crowd of over 1000, including many belligerent and hysterical abstinence-only advocates.
The abstinence-only proponents disrupted the meeting to such an extent that it had to be ended 45 minutes earlier than it was scheduled to be. OPS officials emphasized the fact that students had a choice to opt out of the proposed curriculum. Yet this fact seemed to have no effect on the level of outrage from conservative parents. One woman who was dubbed "puritymom" stood and screamed at OPS educators during the meeting.
"It’s my daughter! My daughter! Who’s going to keep her pure? Nobody! I am! Not OPS! Not OPS!"
Her mindset reflects the general attitude among many in the pro-abstinence movement who believe that sex before marriage will somehow make young people less "pure" or less "good" than they would have been had they waited until marriage. One common lesson in abstinence classes is the "stick of gum" example that compares students (usually female students) who engage in sexual activity to a stick of gum that has been chewed. This type of unscientific tactic has had an especially detrimental effect on victims of rape and sexual abuse.
"Puritymom" was filmed during her tirade at the meeting:
It wasn't just "puritymom" who caused havoc during the meeting. Several of the parents and audience members made it a point to threaten and intimidate members of the LGBTQ community. Among the proposed changes to the curriculum would be inclusive lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as emergency contraception, and abortion.
"A group of young LGBTQ people were threatened with violence by a mother and her son for being there, for not apologizing for their sexuality, and for supporting education that was respectful of their identities," recalled Jay Irwin, a University of Omaha professor who attended the meeting and wrote about it.
"They were called evil, sinful, and told they were going to hell. The advisor that brought them, who is also queer identified, was told that she was teaching them how to be gay and that she should be ashamed of herself. When the advisor asked that the person be respectful, that’s when the threats of violence began. She ushered her groups out to make sure they stayed safe."
CSE advocates in general were subject to harrassment at the meeting. Irwin also said that an atheist member of the audience was assaulted by some of the pro-abstinence advocates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Planned Parenthood was a target of criticism by some (despite having nothing to do with the specific curriculum being proposed).
"Planned Parenthood has came in. There is a big ring here. We are fighting this on the state level as well," Amber Parker, a member of the audience, told local news organization WDAM.
District officials deny that claim.
"They have never been involved," Dr. Karen Spencer-May, the district supervisor of human growth and development, said. "We made a commitment to this community 30 years ago that we would not involve Planned Parenthood, so we haven't. It's just too controversial for us."
Another parent, Bernie Garcia, was interviewed by local health advocacy group LiveWellNebraska while he stood outside waving a sign that read, "Say No to Comprehensive Sex Ed." He claimed during the interview that the new program would teach children different sex positions and how to masturbate, despite having no concrete evidence of this.
"That’s disgusting," Garcia said. "That’s not right. Children should learn about sex when they become adults."
School officials said that in the past they have not really had this level of anger regarding curriculum changes. Spencer-May said that in the past most parents were content with their sex education program and that school officials had not experienced a reaction from the community like the one on Tuesday. Many might wonder what caused the change in attitudes among parents from ones of acceptance to ones of such extreme hostility.
One answer, according to LiveWell reports, is that the angry mob that formed during last Tuesday night was inspired by social media posts, churches and other community organizations, including the right-wing Christian group Nebraskans for Founders’ Values. It's also believed that many of the more vocal attendees of the meeting may have been purely abstinence activists and even not members of the Omaha community. OPS officials said they believed many of the participants actually came from outside their district.