Damakant Jayshi

Wausau School officials on Monday backed away from proposed policy changes on sexual education after an intense backlash from students, parents and members of the community – for now.

Some Wausau School Board members also questioned the wisdom of the proposal and expressed surprise at the breadth of the changes. As a result, district administration will present a revised policy draft in two weeks to the board.

The proposed changes to policies on Human Growth and Development dealing with sexual education curriculum removed instruction on contraceptives and prioritized abstinence, prompting a swift outcry from the community. Abstinence-only sex education in schools, despite proving to be a failure in delaying sexual relations, avoiding unwanted pregnancies or preventing sexually transmitted diseases or infections, has been a topic of discussion among some religious and political groups who consider it effective in controlling teen sexual activity. But experts warn that such an approach is both ineffective and unethical.

Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts and Director of Secondary Education Jennifer Rauscher defended the changes, saying district officials were working to align policy with state statutes. Hilts insisted that the changes were a response to a provision in 2021 Wisconsin Act 90 that explains the process “under which a parent of a newborn child may relinquish custody of the child to a law enforcement officer, emergency medical services practitioner, or hospital staff member.” That only raised more questions.

“You say that the policy changes are in response to Act 90, but Act 90 only requires educating kids about where and how to drop off unwanted babies,” wrote a viewer in response to Hilts video remarks. “If that is the case, why all the other changes?”

Hilts on Monday released a video in which he accused Wausau Pilot & Review of “misinformation” and “unethical reporting” in a story explaining the proposed new language He specifically said no “substantial changes” were proposed.

But that explanation failed to satisfy students, parents and community members who wrote to the Board and took to social media to vent their anger and frustration. The ire was especially directed at Superintendent Hilts, with some accusing him of “gaslighting” the public. 

When Monday’s meeting began, Board President Jim Bouche allowed Hilts to address the issue before public comments began. Hilts repeated that nothing was being removed but he apologized for not proactively communicating to the community.

Students and parents were not moved. A number of public speakers and those who submitted written comments (see the redacted version provided by the WSD), accused the administration and the board of imposing their own ideological preferences on students, something they termed both risky and dangerous. 

Some of the comments were brutal.

“Complete abstinence is a great concept, but for most teens, it’s not reality anywhere but in your minds,” said a written comment.

A group of people in a meeting

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Avia Lynch, a student in the district, said many students rely on teachers for factual information about safe sex.

“There are students out there that don’t know,” said Lynch, a freshman. “There are students that don’t have access to anything. Teachers have the ability to help but if this passes it all goes down the drain, it all disappears.”

“It’s our education on the line here,” she said.

Yet another student who is graduating this year, Megan Marohl, termed abstinence-only as “a categorical failure of educational goals, qualitatively and quantitatively, a failure so egregious that 95% of Americans don’t practice abstinence.” 

“If you are interested in saving my soul or parenting me, I suggest starting a church or adopting a puppy,” she said.

Some parents said they were scared and angry at the changes. 

Mary Hoffman said she felt she could no longer trust the board. Christine Salm, who was previously a member of the Human Growth & Development Committee, questioned the need to for changes to policies that were updated just two years ago. “Science has not changed,” Salm said.

Sarah Werth, a Wausau mother with two teens in the school district, said she is most concerned about the changes related to removing instruction on contraceptives and various barrier methods to prevent pregnancies and STDs. She was skeptical of the administration’s denial that the district is proposing any curriculum changes. “If there is no plan to change the curriculum, then why change the policy?” she asked, terming the attempt disingenuous.

Werth pointed to data that show 82-99% of Americans have used at least one method of contraceptive, some beginning as early as age 15.”

“You may be part of 1-18% that do not use contraceptives and that is fine, but we need to think of all of our students,” Werth said, adding that promoting abstinence-only education is dangerous.

Jeff Johnson, a former Marathon County Supervisor, told the board they could not impose anyone’s personal agenda and reminded them that they did not campaign on changing the instruction on sex education curriculum.

Andrew Lynch, a Wausau parent, suggested more research and information on the topic and encouraged the board to keep parents informed.

Board Vice President Lance Trollop termed the proposed changes going far beyond the statute requirements.

Pat McKee, former board president, suggested adding only the language to satisfy the state statute and leaving the policy document unchanged, given the interpretation and opposition to the proposals.

Bouche, too, suggested not inserting any big changes, referencing a comment from a community member: “If it is not broken, why fix it?”

Taken aback by the vehemence of the opposition to the proposal – almost all of the 11 speakers at the meeting and over 30 of the submitted written comments opposed the changes – the district dropped the idea for the time being.

The board’s Committee asked Dr. Rauscher to bring a revised draft that does not omit instruction on contraceptives for the WSD Board’s consideration. The matter will be discussed at the board meeting in two weeks.

But the proposed changes and the retreat have left so many questions unanswered. 

One of the rationales for the changes was alignment of district policy and curriculum with state law, a provision that was signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers in November last year. Unclear is why the admin took seven months to align with Act 90 or why massive changes in language and removing contraceptive instruction from the policy is part of the plan.

District officials say a citizen’s advisory committee develops the Human Growth & Development curriculum, which was updated the two years ago. The new committee is yet to be reconstituted. Officials have not said who pushed for the language changes.

Some parents and students are unconvinced that a curriculum change is not on the horizon. In emails shared with Wausau Pilot & Review, Hilts acknowledged that some board members are indeed interested in potential changes to the curriculum.

“The board has the authority to change the curriculum whenever it wants,” he wrote to parents when he was asked about the changes under sexual education curriculum. “We have no current plan to review the curriculum, but I believe there is interest among some board members to make changes.” When asked to name the board members, Hilts did not respond.