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North East ISD committee names frontrunner for new sex education curriculum

A woman looks at a pamphlet of 7th grade sex education materials next to table with other materials spread out.
Camille Phillips
A North East ISD parent looks over one of the sex education curriculum options under consideration. Due to copyright concerns, North East ISD parents are only able to see the materials at in-person locations or by logging into their parent portal to see digital versions, if they exist.

A group of parents and educators tasked with recommending the materials the North East Independent School District should use to teach sex education is nearing a decision.

At a public meeting Thursday night, committee chair Ben Elliott, a parent from the Madison High School cluster, said they were leaning toward a curriculum called Choosing the Best.

“This is definitely the leading candidate for many reasons,” Elliott said. “Also, it seems like from the feedback we’re getting, parents that are out there reviewing the content seem also to prefer this program.”

Elliott said Choosing the Best meets the most state education standards out of the three curriculum options under consideration and is the most adaptable.

North East ISD paused sex education this year in order to select new curriculum after administrators expressed concern the district’s previous curriculum may not meet revised state health education standards, known as TEKS. The TEKS were revised in 2020 but didn’t go into effect until fall of 2022.

The other curriculum options under consideration are ESTEEM and Heritage Keepers. The committee of six parents, a pastor, and two district health administrators ruled out NEISD’s prior curriculum and a supplement to the district’s health textbook early in the process.

Out of the three options on the table, childbirth educator Tina Castellanos told the committee Thursday she also preferred Choosing the Best.

“I feel much more comfortable tonight after hearing that they seem to be moving in the direction of something that is more evidence based and peer reviewed,” she said. Castellanos was on the committee that recommended the district’s previous sex ed curriculum.

“I think (Choosing the Best) will do what it needs to do,” Castellanos said. “That's what I shared here, and I'll always keep sharing with people, is it's never about your child, right. So many people bring this into this personal piece of this is just about my kid. This is what I want my kid to learn. And my piece is always this is about all of the kids that we serve.”

After the first public meeting in March, Castellanos said she was worried Heritage Keepers was the frontrunner.

Patrick Von Dohlen with the San Antonio Family Association was one of several people who spoke in favor of Heritage Keepers at that meeting. He said he pulled his nine children from the district in 2016 when the district selected its previous curriculum, Draw the Line, Respect the Line for middle school and Big Decisions for high school. Those curriculums are abstinence-based but discuss the use of condoms.

Parents are required to opt-in for each individual sex ed lesson at NEISD, so students only attended lessons their parents wanted them to attend. According NEISD spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor, roughly 81% of students took at least one lesson under the district’s old curriculum. However, Chancellor said the district heard from some parents that didn’t know how to access the parent portal to opt their child in. Out of the parents who submitted permission slips, 96% opted in.

“On May 9, 2016, Northeast Independent School District Board chose a terrible path,” Von Dohlen said in March. “So, I'm ecstatic to hear and see the work that you've done.”

The San Antonio Family Association is a conservative Christian group that has campaigned against the NEISD trustees that voted for the 2016 curriculum and supported the addition of the district’s three new conservative trustees.

However, Thursday committee members echoed Castellanos’ concerns that Heritage Keepers didn’t have good evidence it was effective.

Elliott, the committee chair, also said Heritage Keepers met the fewest state standards and was the least adaptable.

The committee’s presentations and breakdown of the evidence for each option is available online.

All three curriculum options are abstinence focused, as required by Texas law. But Heritage Keepers could arguably be seen to have the most overt ties to religious beliefs due to its emphasis that there should be no sex outside marriage.

At both public meetings, Elliott said the goal of the committee was to “meet but not exceed the TEKS.”

“Some parents are like, 'abstinence doesn't work.' Okay, well, we don't have the option to say that because Texas says we have to teach abstinence first,” Elliott said in March, adding that “we decided as a group that we're going to cover the law. We're going to cover the TEKS. And we're not going to go one inch past it.”

The revised health TEKS approved in 2020 discuss contraception and condoms in 8th grade and high school as a way to “reduce the risk of STDs/STIs and pregnancy.” NEISD requires students to take health in 6th grade and high school.

But after looking over the materials in March, Johnson High School parent Liana Benavides is worried all three options are overly judgmental and unrealistic.

“You can sit there and get preachy and say abstinence is the best way. Abstinence should be the only way. But that's not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Benavides said. “I just want a curriculum that offers different solutions, different alternatives so that kids can find something that works best for them. Not everyone has the same religious beliefs, but ideally you'd like to show them how to practice safe sex if that's the choice that they're going to make for themselves.”

Although Benavides described Heritage Keepers as “even more appalling,” she also has reservations about Choosing the Best. One of the lessons from Choosing the Best that stuck with her asks students to go around the room marking index cards before choosing a student at random to have an STD, and therefore have infected everyone who signed their card.

“To me, it implied that if a student becomes sexually active, they're just going to go and have sex with anybody and everybody,” Benavides said. “And that’s just not fair.”

NEISD’s sex ed curriculum search is being spearheaded by a sub-committee of the district’s Student Health Advisory Council. They’re meeting Friday to discuss possible revisions ESTEEM plans to make to its materials. But unless ESTEEM is willing to make big changes quickly, Elliott said they will most likely stick with Choosing the Best.

The full Student Health Advisory Council meets Wednesday to vote on that recommendation, and the NEISD board of trustees is expected to vote on the curriculum on May 8.

While choosing a sex education curriculum is unlikely to ever be a non-event in Texas, recent changes on NEISD’s board and simmering tensions over the last curriculum selection heighten the stakes for this decision.

NEISD reformed the membership of the advisory council this year. Appointments are now made by school board trustees, a move that Benavides said makes the curriculum selection more political.

At the meeting in March, Elliott and other committee members pushed back against that idea. They also defended the use of a “CSE harmful analysis tool” as part of the rubric they used to judge curriculum. The tool was created by Family Watch International, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-LGBT hate group.

“We did not select that because of any political views or any affiliation with that group whatsoever. We selected it because it had good criteria. We felt and we all agreed as a group that we felt the criteria in it was at least acceptable as a basic standard,” Elliott said, adding that the tool measures whether curriculum does things like “sexualize children” or “promote abortion.”

Elliott said he disregarded the hate group label because Southern Poverty Law Center is politically motivated.

“I started looking and the group that calls Family Watch a hate group is not a reputable group at all,” Elliott said.

It’s become increasingly common in recent years for members of the Republican Party to disregard the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Republican National Committee adopted a resolution against SPLC in 2020.

About 30 people attended both of the committee’s public meetings. One of the parents Thursday asked why they hadn’t been better publicized. One of the committee members said they had the same concern.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.