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Parkway School Board meeting

People pack the Parkway School Board meeting room Wednesday night, March 9, 2016, for the meeting at which the board discussed a revised sex education curriculum. Photo by Kristen Taketa, ktaketa@post-dispatch.com

The Parkway School Board approved Wednesday night a new sexual education curriculum that some students cheered as promoting inclusion for peers of different sexual orientations and gender identities, but some doctors and parents bemoaned as portraying teenage sexual activity as acceptable.

The bigger changes include teaching eighth- and 10th-graders about sexual consent and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. The board also added lessons about sexual predators, sexting and online safety and lessons for third-graders about gender stereotypes.

Board members Deborah Hopper and Sam Sciortino and Board President Chris Jacob voted against the revised curriculum.

The new curriculum pitted students who wanted to be taught about gender inclusion and sexual consent against parents, doctors and religious leaders who think the new curriculum fails to emphasize abstinence enough. Several hundred people came to the meeting and about 45 gave public comments.

Students can opt out of the district’s sex education lessons, but the district encourages parents to talk with teachers before pulling their children out of lessons.

Many opponents, who were overwhelmingly adults and most of whom were parents, healthcare professionals or religious leaders, claimed the new curriculum is strongly influenced by Planned Parenthood because they think it draws on lesson plans that are associated with the organization.

The Parkway curriculum includes no discussion of abortion, and Assistant Superintendent Lisa Merideth said the curriculum drew mainly on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for sexual education.

Opponents also argued that even though the curriculum emphasizes abstinence, they think that message is diluted by teaching extensively about contraceptives, which makes it seem that teenage sexual activity is normal and acceptable. They said they didn’t think students so young would know better to choose abstinence over contraceptives under the Parkway curriculum.

“Middle schoolers don’t know best. Their brains are still developing,” said Rob Hicks, one of several doctors who spoke against the curriculum.

The previous curriculum included lessons on contraceptives, sexual activity and sexually transmitted infections.

Many of the supporters were Parkway students. They asked the board to approve the changes because they think the revisions will help prevent sexual assault and promote inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“In the end, there is no such thing as too much information,” Mckenzie Thompson, a freshman at Parkway North High School, told the board.

Merideth said the district formulated the changes by surveying students and parents who wanted changes. She argued that the new curriculum places a greater emphasis on abstinence and teaches students about the physical and emotional consequences of starting a romantic or sexual relationship.

The new curriculum will be taught starting in the 2016-17 school year.

Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.