The Miami-Dade School Board last week rejected a recommendation to adopt a comprehensive health and sexual health education textbook for middle and high school students after objections were raised over the age-appropriateness of the sex education content.
On Thursday, the board reversed that decision — again.
The 5-4 vote to adopt the textbook came about four hours into a special meeting that Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman called to discuss the implications of the board’s July 20 decision that left the district without a comprehensive health education curriculum and out of compliance with state statute.
During the meeting, Tabares Hantman, who’s been on the board for nearly three decades but isn’t seeking reelection this year, also proposed rescinding the previous decision and voting again. She was the deciding vote on Thursday, flipping her previous two votes against the textbook adoption.
“I must make sure that the district is in compliance with state standards and curriculum requirements,” she said prior to the vote. “We always say we must abide by the law and comply with rules and requirements. If in the future the standards change, I’m sure ... the board will act appropriately and make sure our district complies accordingly.”
The change, she said, was a realization that the district could be penalized for not following state statute and requirements. (Indeed, district officials warned the board prior to the vote last week that a vote to reject the textbook would leave the district out of compliance with state requirements.)
Vice Chair Steve Gallon III and board members Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, Lucia Baez-Geller and Luisa Santos also voted yes. Board members Marta Perez, Christi Fraga, Lubby Navarro and Mari-Tere Rojas voted no.
Along with the textbook adoption, the chair tasked district staff with enacting a “robust outreach action plan to increase parental awareness of the opt-out option” in compliance with the state’s parents rights laws, such as the Parents Bill of Rights and the Parental Rights in Education law, which critics have dubbed, ‘don’t say gay.’
Under Florida law and School Board policy, parents and families are able to opt-out of lessons they don’t want taught to their child.
Additional requirements include providing parents information on the textbook that is specific to every school grade, particularly in middle school, and a reporting requirement to the board regarding the communication and action plan, Hantman Tabares said.
For her part, Rojas, who has consistently voted against the measure, requested that any communication sent to parents should be sent in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, and assurance that “any topics that are not comprehensively age appropriate and developmentally appropriate have been removed from the digital textbook.”
Board flip-flops on textbook adoption
The book, “Comprehensive Health Skills,” which will address the state’s required units of study for Human Reproduction and Disease Education for grades 6 through 12 includes a version for middle school and one for high school classes. It offers research-based health education with topics such as nutrition, physical activity and sexually transmitted diseases and was first adopted in April by the board.
For that vote, Tabares Hantman, Rojas and Perez voted against the curriculum, while Navarro was absent. Gallon, Bendross-Mindingall, Baez-Geller, Santos and Fraga voted in favor.
At that time, the board agreed it would remove a chapter, “Understanding Sexuality,” from both middle and high school textbooks that included topics of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Nevertheless, a group of community members and parents, led by Alex Serrano, the county director for County Citizens Defending Freedom, a national organization with ties to conservative and politically active Christian groups, petitioned against the book, claiming the material was inappropriate. Among the group’s complaints were lessons discussing abortion and emergency contraceptives and the terms cisgender or gender-fluid.
The petition, which included 278 signatures, triggered a review process and public hearing on June 8, where fewer than five petitioners attended, according to the district. A meeting on July 20 followed, and more than 40 people signed up to speak on the topic. Of those that spoke, 38 urged the board to adopt the book; just four spoke out against it.
Still, the board voted it down.
Tabares Hantman, Rojas, Perez and Navarro voted no. Fraga, who first voted yes in April, changed positions and voted no. Gallon, Bendross-Mindingall, Baez-Geller and Santos voted in favor.
On Thursday, Fraga said her decision to vote down the textbook last week was because of procedural concerns — such as confusion surrounding what books would be available online and to whom — she became aware of after the April meeting.
Policy questions spark frustration among board
Much of Thursday’s debate, however, focused on policy and procedures that are allowable during the meeting.
Navarro, who was the most vocal member against the chair’s motion to bring the item back for another vote, questioned the board attorney and said Thursday’s meeting was the first time she heard that a vote could be recalled. (According to the district, the board has previously invoked the option.)
The public assumed, based on the agenda, that the board was to discuss a plan for how to be in compliance, not to discuss the textbook again, she said.
Perez agreed, saying changing the intent of the day’s agenda doesn’t allow for proper public notice.
“We have to be transparent We don’t want to play games,” she said. “If the intent was to rescind [last week’s] vote, if that was the action proposed, I would think everyone would know what we’re talking about. Many of us believed [the meeting] was about talking about alternatives and how to design a plan.”
To suggest that “all of a sudden we’re going to just rescind” the vote is a “little disheartening,” she said, arguing that more people would have attended the meeting if it would have been noticed differently.
For her part, Tabares Hantman responded to the critiques, saying she asked the attorney during the meeting whether she could rescind the vote, to which he responded yes.
Most parents who comment support sex-ed
Like last week, the majority of speakers prior to the vote on Thursday urged the board to adopt the textbook. Many of the speakers, including some medical professionals, parents, students and district alumni reiterated the phrase “sex-ed saves lives” throughout the afternoon.
Amanda Altman, chief executive officer, Kristi House, an organization that provides services for all forms of child trauma, implored the board to make decisions based on evidence and facts.
“Parents aren’t the experts on everything,” Altman said. “If you’re not willing to follow the evidence and listen to the experts on this, what else are you not willing to follow the evidence on? We don’t just have a duty to comply ... we have a moral duty to our children.”
There was a handful of parents who doubled down on what they believed to be inappropriate content included in the texts, however.
Serrano and Eulalia Maria Jimenez-Hincapie, the Miami chapter leader for Moms for Liberty, a conservative, politically involved self-proclaimed parental rights organization, also spoke against the textbook during the meeting.
No one is asking for children to not learn about sexual education, Jimenez-Hincapie argued. “It’s about inappropriate content.”
For Marika Lynch, a district parent and co-organizer of a petition in support of sex education in the district that garnered more than 2,800 signatures in three days, the board’s decision was surprising. She applauded the chairwoman and reiterated that the information in the books will teach students how to prevent abuse, unwanted pregnancies and diseases.
“The overwhelming majority of parents want their kids to have this information, and I’m so glad the board heard that,” she said. But, she added, that “fight isn’t over. The fight over school curriculum will continue.”
Without the information on LGBTQ+ youth or discussions about gender identity, the book is “leaving a whole group of kids behind and that’s something we’re going to need to address,” she said. “We can’t keep leaving kids behind.”