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Dozens show up to oppose sex education curriculum for Hillsborough schools

They were among more than 3,000 who petitioned the district to change the lessons for kids in grades 7 to 9.
Audience members listen during a forum Thursday on Hillsborough County's sex education curriculum. The forum in Tampa was led by Claudia Isom, an independent hearing officer.
Audience members listen during a forum Thursday on Hillsborough County's sex education curriculum. The forum in Tampa was led by Claudia Isom, an independent hearing officer. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 17|Updated Nov. 18

TAMPA — Incensed by the Hillsborough County School Board’s choice of sex education curriculum in September, more than 3,000 parents and other residents petitioned the district in hopes of forcing a change.

On Thursday, dozens of the objectors urged an independent hearing officer to recommend that the board drop its choice and start over. They told retired judge Claudia Isom that the curriculum did not encourage abstinence-based lessons, as state law requires if sex education is taught, and that many of the materials are inappropriate for students in seventh through ninth grades.

Several specifically objected to links to websites such as amaze.org, which they said provided questionable information about gender identity and sexual orientation.

“Our seventh graders are 12-year-olds. Our 12-year-olds should be innocent children. They should not be exposed to this material,” said Kathleen Brown of Valrico, who noted she does not have children in the age groups.

Related: Hillsborough School Board OKs sex education lessons after objections

Opponents argued that the material should be about health education, not sex, yet the lessons do not adhere to science because they state that gender is on a spectrum.

“That is completely false,” said speaker Cody Powell. “Gender is not on a spectrum like autism. There are two genders, male and female.”

Many doctors disagree. In a 2018 statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics expressed strong support for transgender and gender-diverse youth, noting the latter term “is used to acknowledge and include the vast diversity of gender identities that exists.”

Others at Thursday’s hearing challenged the use of detailed drawings of genitals, paired with lessons to have mixed groups discuss them.

“This is the beginning, and the content becomes more damaging as the lessons progress,” said Jessica Graham, leader of the Moms for Liberty Hillsborough County chapter.

Those concerns about the content, paired with misgivings about the process in adopting the curriculum, led to the overall consensus among speakers that Isom should tell the board in forceful and clear terms that it should go in a new direction.

“As a voice of we the people I am requesting the offensive material approved by the school board be removed from the classroom,” pastor Travis Smith said.

After 24 petitioners made their arguments, school district lawyer Jeff Gibson presented the district’s perspective.

He first addressed the procedural questions, contending that the district provided the required amount of time for the public to review and speak to the materials being considered. He further suggested that such matters should not be subject to Isom’s review as they were not made in the formal petitions or elsewhere.

He then laid out the Florida laws relating to the requirements that schools teach health education, arguing that the district followed all the mandates. With the help of health education supervisor Ashlee Cappucci, he also spoke to the petitioners’ complaints about the content.

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Cappucci said the curriculum does not speak to genders other than male and female, though it does refer to biological sex when discussing anatomical parts. She said the district uses amaze.org videos, but not the inflammatory ones that the speakers referenced.

And she asserted that abstinence is a key component of the lessons.

“It’s covered 13 different times in the curriculum,” Cappucci said, calling it the only 100% effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The board adopted the same materials a year ago, without objection, Gibson said. If anything, he added under questioning, this year’s version includes fewer items about gender identity and sexual orientation.

After the district finished, leaders of the opposition group got one more chance to speak.

Longtime conservative activist Terry Kemple, who spearheaded the effort, urged Isom to rely on common sense as well as the law in making her recommendation. He said the only reason people didn’t complain last year was that they did not know the curriculum was being presented.

The board has set a tentative date of Dec. 20 to review Isom’s written recommendation, if it is ready by then.

Several groups joined forces to organize the challenge. They were Ban Explicit Books in Schools, Community Issues Council, County Citizens Defending Freedom, Embracelife 911, Florida Citizens Alliance, Moms for Liberty Hillsborough chapter, Protect Our Children Project and Hillsborough County Whistleblower Jason Ferger.

Other area school districts have not faced similar challenges.

In Pinellas County, the school board adopted its abstinence-plus curriculum on Tuesday without any speakers rising in opposition, including the representative for the conservative group Moms for Liberty sitting in the audience. The Pasco County School Board approved its curriculum in the spring without incident, and received no complaints afterward.

Florida law requires school boards to publicly consider their sex education curriculum annually, to include an opt-out provision for families and to allow 30 days after adoption for parents and other county residents to file formal opposition to the materials.

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