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Miami-Dade school board reverses decision, approves sex ed textbooks

Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Outgoing Miami-Dade County School Board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman cast the decisive vote to approve two sex education textbooks at a special meeting on July 28, 2022. She is not running for reelection this fall.

In a surprising reversal, the Miami-Dade County School Board voted to approve two textbooks for comprehensive health education for grades 6 through 12 — instructional materials which include reproductive health and sex ed.

The 5 to 4 vote during a special meeting on Thursday overturns the board’s decision on July 20 to toss out the textbooks, which a vocal minority of parents argued includes material that isn’t age appropriate.

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“Comprehensive health education saves lives,” board member Luisa Santos told reporters after voting for the textbooks. “We heard from many speakers today who said, it wasn’t until I learned this language that I could identify I was being abused. Or I misunderstood and landed in a terrible health situation because I didn’t have access to how sexually transmitted diseases … how you can get them.”

The board’s decision last week to reject the textbooks, Comprehensive Health Skills for Middle School and Comprehensive Health Skills for High School, left the nation’s fourth largest school district without the ability to teach sex ed — at least until new instructional materials were adopted, a process that district staff said would have taken four to eight months.

The board’s vote to reject the textbooks drew public outcry and national attention — including from the district’s former superintendent Alberto Carvalho. Florida school districts are required by state law to provide comprehensive health education, including the “awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy”.

Outgoing school board Chair Perla Tabares Hantman made the motion to reconsider the board's previous decision and she cast the deciding vote in support of the textbooks on Thursday. Speaking at the special meeting, Hantman said she was concerned about the district not being in compliance with state requirements — and that she had received harsh messages.

“It’s been very difficult, the last few days since last week. I’ve certainly been disrespected. I’ve been threatened. But you know what, it’s part of the job. This job is not for the faint of heart,” Hantman said. “It is my duty, my obligation, my responsibility to ensure the proper operation of the school district — above all and in spite of my personal beliefs. I have very strong personal beliefs and principles. I must make sure our district is in compliance with state standards and curriculum requirements.”

The other board members who voted in support of the textbooks were Lucia Baez-Geller, Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, Steve Gallon and Luisa Santos. Members who voted against the materials were Christi Fraga, Lubby Navarro, Marta Pérez and Mari Tere Rojas.

Advocates for sex ed told the board that the instruction is especially important in Miami-Dade County, which in recent years has had one of the highest HIV transmission rates in the country. The stakes for young people having unprotected sex are even higher after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

Studies show that comprehensive sex ed helps reduce the rate of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy, and helps equip kids with bodily autonomy, an understanding of consent, and the tools to recognize and report sexual abuse.

Among those speaking in support of sex ed was Amanda Altman, the CEO of Kristi House, an advocacy center for survivors of child abuse.

“I am here on behalf of the roughly 2,000 children we see at Kristi House every single year,” Altman said. “Inevitably when we are in a classroom providing education, a child discloses afterwards that something inappropriate has happened to them that they didn't even realize was inappropriate until we provide that education.”

As of Thursday’s meeting, more than 2,700 people had signed a “Save Sex Ed” petition urging the board to reverse its vote and provide comprehensive health instruction, as required by state law.

Board member Steve Gallon said the issue is a personal one for him — he himself was a teenage father. In an interview with WLRN, Gallon said his first child Kastevia was born when he was just 16 and a student in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

“This was not just policy-driven for me. This is personal, from experience, from my role as a principal, as a parent, as a teenage father and one who has daughters,” Gallon told reporters after the vote. “I understand the reality of this.”

Public speakers also said that sex ed has the potential to give LGBTQ students the language to describe their identities — an experience which can be affirming and, some said, life-saving. LGBTQ young people are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers, according to The Trevor Project.

“As a seven year old boy, I felt almost like an alien in like a human body,” said May Marquez, who is transgender. “I couldn't describe it any other way because I didn't have the vocabulary for it.”

“I think to myself how much better my life would have been if I just would have known that earlier,” Marquez said. “We know hundreds of trans kids in our district who know they're different but don't have the words to describe it. Who just want to live happy lives.”

Residents who are opposed to the textbooks took issue with information about emergency contraception, abortion, and language that acknowledges gender identities other than male and female.

“Eleven year olds do not need to learn about abortion. Children do not need to learn that there are 9 genders. It is about inappropriate content,” said Eulalia Jimenez, chair of the Miami-Dade chapter of Moms for Liberty and an activist who has shared QAnon conspiracy theories.

Hantman had voted against the materials twice at previous meetings on July 20 and on April 13, when the board initially voted to approve the textbooks. After that vote, county residents filed 278 petitions, arguing the materials were not age appropriate and that the district’s process wasn’t transparent enough.

Under state law, parents have long been able to opt their children out of sex education. Thursday’s vote means the residents who oppose sex ed won’t be able to opt out the entire district, at least for the coming school year.

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter