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Inside the campaign to cancel sex ed
At the end of June, right-wing advocacy group Moms for Liberty held its annual summit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The summit included a session called “Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Ed or Sexualization” led by conservative education activist Kelly Schenkoske. The forum was part of a larger effort to eliminate or reconstruct sex ed classes in public schools.
The session was closed to members of the media, but Popular Information obtained a recording of the presentation from True North Research.
During the session, Schenkoske strongly objected to the concept of "consent" being included in sex ed curriculum. She argued that teaching kids about consent is counterproductive and leaves children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. “[K]ids are often taught to be obedient." Schenkoske said. “And to teach kids consent is a shift away from really strongly teaching, it's okay to have those really strong boundaries and to say no, because not always do kids have that faculty to strongly say no.”
Schenkoske argued that sex ed classes are "teaching kids activities for how to consent to sexual acts [when]… the laws in that state may prevent them from consenting to some of these things." She said the concept of consent is "confusing" and "there's a benefit to teaching kids how to say no and to have those boundaries.”
Schenkoske does not appear to have a background in sex ed or any other form of education. She homeschools her children and recently stated on the podcast of Tim Pool, an incendiary right-wing pundit, that she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She is also prone to conspiratorial thinking and extremism. On X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Schenkoske promoted several posts suggesting that the wildfires in Maui were a government plot due to Hawaii Governor Josh Green (D) stating that the state was thinking of “acquir[ing] that land.”
On August 15, Schenkoske promoted a post stating, “Diversity is segregation" and "Inclusion is exclusion."
Schenkoske highlighted the days when sex ed only included “safety prevention, birth control options, [and] how to prevent… sexually transmitted infections and viruses.” She criticized "comprehensive sex education" for addressing topics like “sexual rights and sexual citizenship” and “sexuality,” which includes gender identities and sexual orientation. Schenkoske argued that “children do not possess the typical capacity to process all of this." She said that topics like sexuality have no place in public schools.
Schenkoske also objected to curriculums that recognize LGBTQ people and relationships without treating them as abnormal. “[Heteronormativity] is the norm that a male and female relationship [is] the norm. But this idea is very much to remove or to get away from that concept,” she said
During the session, Schenkoske argued that comprehensive sex ed is “interconnected” and “integrated” with critical race theory (CRT) and social emotional learning (SEL). SEL focuses on developing “critical thinking, emotion management, conflict resolution, decision making, [and] teamwork.” Some SEL concepts, which until very recently were uncontroversial, are likely included in sex ed classes. CRT is a complex theory developed by law professors and taught in higher education settings. There is “little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students,” but Schenkoske argued that the “ideas” of CRT are being “incorporated” into classes, including topics like “intersectionality, power and privilege.” (Those concepts are not exclusive to CRT.)
In an April 2022 interview with the Washington Examiner, Schenkoske accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of pushing comprehensive sex ed, CRT, and SEL "to create an unholy trinity of left-wing proselytization in today’s classrooms."
Schenkoske and Moms for Liberty are not just holding forums criticizing sex ed. They are successfully altering sex ed curriculum to conform to their agenda. Earlier this year in Leon County, Florida, Moms for Liberty fought to postpone approval of the school district's sex ed curriculum. Members of Moms for Liberty said the curriculum was “dehumanizing” and “harm[ed] children.” The group’s complaints focused on the fact “that the word ‘anal’ was used more than 30 times in the instructional materials,” even though the word was only used to “refer to the risks of sexually transmitted diseases.” The group also argued that “a video in the optional instructional” provisions “promoted masturbation” and “that the information for middle schoolers promoted sex.” The curriculum was eventually approved after the “optional provisions” were removed and “some of the wording that Moms for Liberty objected to [was] changed.”
When the audience started asking questions, things really got wild.
The session concluded with the opportunity for audience members to ask Schenkoske questions. “In Michigan, we voted on Proposal 3… we literally voted our parental rights away,” one audience member said. “[W]e have lost our parental medical rights of our children… the schools have all the things that they are able to pass out, the abortion pills, they are able to start transgender, trans, you know… Your child can go to the clinic between 2nd and 3rd hours and have their abortion pill… This is in our middle school and high schools.” Later the audience member said, “[a] boy can start the process of cutting his penis off right there in his high school on his lunch.”
These comments went unchecked by Schenkoske. “[Y]es, there’s other states that are making changes abruptly,” Schenkoske said. But the claims that the audience member made are not true.
Michigan Proposal 3, a ballot initiative approved in 2022, amended the state constitution “to provide that every individual has a right to reproductive freedom, including the right to make and carry out pregnancy-related decisions such as those concerning prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion, miscarriage management, and infertility care.”
Conservative opponents of the Michigan ballot initiative claimed that it would “repeal parental consent requirements,” and “allow children to undergo ‘gender change therapy without parental consent.’” Attorneys for Reproductive Freedom for All, the group behind the initiative, said these claims were a scare tactic intended to undermine support for the initiative. The group “argued that Proposal 3 would leave parental consent requirements untouched.” According to the Detroit Free Press, “[l]egal experts weighing in on the matter argue that parental consent laws in place regarding medical treatments for minors don’t conflict with” Proposal 3. Even if, in the future, a court heard a “legal challenge from a minor seeking gender-affirming care without their parents’ consent,” it is unlikely that courts would interpret the proposal as pertaining to gender-affirming care, “[b]ecause those backing the amendment have denied that it has anything to do with” it.
Another audience member told Schenkoske that Illinois has “put LGBTQ history into the grade schools,” claiming that “it’s generating conversations that are highly inappropriate because the kids don’t know what that is.” The audience member said that the children were then “asking about it,” causing the parents to “freak out.” The audience member said they were “telling people to homeschool” their children for history to avoid mentions of LGBTQ content.
The audience member was referring to HB 0246, which amended the U.S. history requirement for public schools in Illinois to "include a study of the roles and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the history of this country and this State.” The law, which was passed in 2019, “mandates that by the time students finish eighth grade, public schools must teach them about contributions to state and U.S. history made by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”
Schenkoske responded by equating instruction on LGBTQ history with sex ed, saying that "sexuality conversations" are invading every subject in public schools.
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