Gender identity lesson prompts concern, review in Superior

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Aug. 9—SUPERIOR — It was standing room only at the Superior School Board meeting Monday, Aug. 8.

Nearly 40 people commented on a new agenda item regarding the gender identity unit taught to fifth graders as part of their human growth and development curriculum. Many spoke in support of keeping the unit as is. Others voiced concerns about whether it was age-appropriate for fifth grade students.

A crowd that big hasn't attended a School Board meeting since masks were on the agenda, according to District Administrator Amy Starzecki. What drew them out?

"I think that we have been working really hard as a school district to provide an inclusive environment for all of our students, and yet we also want to be transparent and we want all of our families' voices to be heard. So I think tonight what you saw is the opportunity for families to be able to voice what they want and you heard many people speak on both sides of the matter," she said.

The agenda item at hand was how the board would review an appeal that had been filed regarding the curriculum. Board members voted to let both sides appear in person, with a 30-minute limit for each, instead of relying solely on written statements or the committee's records.

Public comment is typically taken at such meetings, Starzecki said, but the district will work with legal counsel to ensure they follow the proper procedure. No date had been confirmed for the meeting as of Tuesday, Aug. 9.

Once the board meets for the review, it has 20 days to respond to the appeal.

"We're following the complaint process," Starzecki said.

Every five years, the district is required to review its human growth and development curriculum. That was done last summer, Starzecki said, and committee members recommended including the gender identity unit for fifth grade students.

Gender identity and expression is a topic that is already taught at middle and high school levels, according to Crystal Hintzman, director of curriculum and Instruction for the district. Spring 2022 was the first time it was taught to fifth graders.

"It is also the first complaint we received," Hintzman said.

Form letter complaints were received from parents at five of the district's elementary schools in April, Starzecki said. Thirty parents in the district were represented, according to the appeal; the district administrator said the letters represented fewer than 20.

Under scrutiny is a five-slide presentation including two videos, each less than three minutes long. The entire presentation takes about 30 minutes, according to counselors and administrators who spoke at the meeting.

The complaint sought to make the material something parents could choose to let their child see — an opt-in lesson, instead of the current opt-out method. The complaint also expressed concern over the transparency of a letter sent to parents about the curriculum and questioned who sat on the committee that chose to add the lesson for the 2021-2022 school year.

A curriculum review committee met twice in June to examine the complaint, with representation from the petitioner. The members unanimously recommended keeping the curriculum in place with two changes:

* Include a checkbox before each of the curriculum items to be taught, allowing parents to check a box to opt out of a specific lesson.

* Include the gender identity documents and frequently asked questions about the lessons as attachments to the parent letter.

"We felt like we could even add more transparency prior to the implementation of the lesson," Starzecki said.

She sent a letter affirming that decision to the complainants. The curriculum aligns to state and national standards, which is aligned to best practice, she wrote.

"We are not 'an island' in this curriculum," Starzecki said.

Narrow views of gender and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes in young children can lead to gender-based harassment, she said. The curriculum matches the district's vision — all means all, every student every day — and its commitment to creating an inclusive, welcoming environment to all students and families, free from harassment and bullying.

"The 'opt-out' allows parents to do what they think is best for their child(ren). It just doesn't allow an objector to control other people's children," Starzecki wrote.

An appeal to the committee's decision was filed Aug. 3, requesting a review by the board. The appeal called the curriculum controversial, inappropriate, unjustified and unnecessary, and questioned whether fifth graders have the level of development necessary to process the concepts taught. In its summary, the appeal supported options including suspension and independent review of the gender identity curriculum, discontinuing it or changing the format to an opt-in lesson.

Per district policy regarding public complaints, no challenged material may be removed from the curriculum except by board action "and no challenged material may be removed solely because it presents ideas that may be unpopular or offensive to some."