By Jack Chavez, Staff writer
(March 2, 2023) The Worcester County Board of Education followed the County Commissioners’ example on Feb. 21 by unanimously denouncing the Health Education Framework bill currently in discussion in the Maryland General Assembly.
The board took in a presentation from WCPS coordinator for instruction Tamara Mills and Annette Wallace, WCPS chief safety and academic officer for grades 9 through 12, after allowing parents and others to offer their opinions on the bill that seeks to codify the framework.
In her presentation, Mills broke down the state of sexual health among Worcester teenagers today and addressed what the bill, HB119, actually does.
Central and southern Worcester County areas have some of the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea and, in 2019, the rate of chlamydia was five times higher in those ages 15 to 24 than the rate for all ages, according data Mills presented from the Maryland Department of Health and the CDC.
According to the data, 40 percent of high school students and 7.3 percent of middle school students have reported having sexual intercourse, 9.9 percent of sexually active high school students have had sex with four or more people in their lives, 23.8 percent reported using alcohol or drugs prior to sex, 45.3 percent reported not using a condom and 11.6 percent reported using no form of birth control at all.
Altogether, 11.9 percent of county students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
“This is really about children’s health and safety,” Mills said.
Mills also addressed the popular concern that the curriculum starts in-depth sex education too early, explaining that Worcester County has “always” begun teaching sexual health in fifth grade and, while the framework allows beginning as early as fourth grade, the county intends to stay with fifth grade.
Mills cited a CDC study that shows 1 in 5 new HIV cases in 2020 were in people ages 13 to 24. She juxtaposed that number with the stats about middle school sexual activity and the lack of condom use in Worcester County.
The commissioners and board seem resolved in their rebuke of the legislation but the public opinion in the county appears to be more varied with regard to a comprehensive overhaul of health education.
During public comments before Mills’s presentation, 15 of the 17 speakers spoke about HB119.
Speakers who were against the bill in its current iteration still outnumbered those who were for it, but multiple people came forward to tout the research that went into the framework.
Margo Gill, a mother of five children in the county’s school system and a family medicine doctor for Atlantic General Hospital, spoke about the stated intent of the physicians and health education teachers who formulated the framework to address disease prevention and risk.
“(It is) definitions only,” Gill said of the subject matter in the framework that many criticized as obscene.
Gill listed several statistics that back the legislation, including that state data indicates that Hispanic and Black students in Worcester County experience childbirth more often than their white counterparts. The rate of sexually transmitted diseases is “steadily increasing” in Worcester County she said.
“I cannot tell you the number of people less than 18 who do not understand their bodies and options and how to protect themselves,” she said. “But those are the kids with access (to healthcare). There are hundreds, if not thousands, of kids in schools who do not have reliable health care access or prevention education or testing. If we take apart or remove comprehensive health education, we are discriminating against those who are more and already susceptible to harm and marginalization.”
Parent Christine Hulslander offered an old adage.
“The time for the map is before you enter the woods,” she said. “Knowing what territory lies ahead is a part of being prepared, informed and knowledgeable.”
She didn’t deny that the material could be described as “smut,” as Commissioner Jim Bunting put it last week, but guessed that the majority of the people in the room at the board meeting had engaged in many of the sexual acts listed in the framework.
“By providing information to our children with age-appropriate content, we are providing a map for the territory ahead,” Hulslander said. “These are things they will experience.”
Still, plenty of opposition — from multiple points — exists to the legislation.
Grant Helvey, who ran for a Worcester County Commissioner seat last year, told the board that he hopes they find the legislation, its authors and supporters “wrongful, self-righteous, arrogant and insulting” while urging any board members who support the bill to name themselves so that “those who entrust you with the authority may judge you and your capability to continue in service.”
“What is the price that you as a trusted school board member place on the rights of families to lead the future generations to become virtuous citizens?” Helvey asked. “What will be the consequence of saying no to tyrants who support the bill? What enforceable powers do they hold over each of you?”
Parent Dianna Harris pointed out that math and English proficiency statistics — still ultimately lacking in her estimation despite being among the best in the state — show that there is already too much on students’ plates.
“I long to understand why, when our students are struggling to add, read and write, this state and this board of education would even entertain expanding the curricula to have students be able to define oral, anal, vaginal and (solo) sex.”
Other opponents made arguments such as the framework robs parents of their right to teach their own kids, that the law should be rewritten to offer the curriculum on an opt-in basis since communication with parents is sometimes unreliable and that the framework is justification for a quid pro quo that would bring prayer back to school.
After the presentation, it was immediately clear that the board would not be supporting the bill. Multiple board members even went so far as to explain that the only reason it didn’t cosign the letter from the county commissioners opposing the bill is that the letter was drafted and sent before the board had a chance to meet.
School board member Jon Andes said that the board’s decision is in line with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) belief that curriculums should be set by local school boards.
“We have been working through (MABE) to oppose HB119 for all the many reasons that were said today,” Andres said. “We need as much flexibility as we possibly can implement the curriculum that makes sense for our students. What might work in Howard County or Baltimore County or Baltimore City may not work in Worcester County in delivering instruction.”
HB119 has yet to cross chambers and is awaiting its second reading, as is its twin bill SB0199.