© 2024 Aspen Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘How much they don’t know’: rolling out controversial ‘3R’ health and sexuality curriculum in Roaring Fork schools

School-based counselors, nurses, and other staff listen to parents provide feedback on the rollout of the Roaring Fork School District’s “3R” health curriculum on Jan. 16, 2024. They were at a district wellness committee meeting to discuss their experiences delivering the new lesson plans covering sexual education.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
School-based counselors, nurses, and other staff listen to parents provide feedback on the rollout of the Roaring Fork School District’s “3R” health curriculum on Jan. 16, 2024. They were at a district wellness committee meeting to discuss their experiences delivering the new lesson plans covering sexual education.

The Roaring Fork School District’s wellness committee held a meeting with families Tuesday night to discuss the “3R” health curriculum.

The three R’s stand for “rights, respect and responsibility.” While the school board has faced a lot of negative feedback over the curriculum from parents who find aspects of it inappropriate, parents at Tuesday’s meeting spent most of their time listening.

Interim superintendent Anna Cole gave a history and overview of the curriculum adoption, which includes sexual education, but the majority of the meeting was spent hearing from school-based clinicians, counselors, and nurses who’ve been teaching the curriculum in classrooms. (The district did not want to put the burden of these new lessons on classroom teachers.)

They shared what’s working well, what isn’t working, and the next steps they’re recommending to the school district.

Sarah Galka is a counselor for the Riverview School in Glenwood Springs. At the meeting, she said she’s quelling a lot of misinformation students have about their bodies.

“We’ve had a number of middle school students who thought a baby [was] in your stomach … [and] not understanding why a boy wouldn’t be able to have a baby,” Galka said. “So it’s been really eye opening to find out how much they don’t know about their body parts and the anatomy that they have.”

Joy Schneiter, a nurse based in Glenwood Springs Elementary School and the Riverview School, said at the meeting that multiple eighth grade girls have told her that they believe children come out of belly buttons. And she said that she spends a lot of time during more advanced lessons discussing basic anatomy and uses an anonymous question and answer box to help address their misunderstandings.

Mary Bahr is a bilingual school nurse teaching the 3R curriculum at Basalt Middle School. She said she understands the value of teaching children the correct names for their body parts at a young age and appreciates that all the 3R lesson materials come in English and Spanish.

“When they have the anatomical name, they are less likely to be sexually abused,” Bahr said. “Let’s make it equitable. It’s got to be in Spanish too.”

Most of the clinicians present noted how valuable it is that the curriculum involves parents. Students are given homework that they complete with their families, so discussions can continue outside the classroom.

“There are opportunities to go home and for students to talk with their parents about what they've learned, … [and ask] any questions that they might have follow-ups on,” said Kendra Nagey, the school-based health center medical director for the district. “This curriculum is really, really reliant on parent input and participation.”

Room for improvement

Parents and staff at the meeting discussed ways they can improve the opt-out process.

Parents who feel uncomfortable with certain topics or lesson plans in the 3R curriculum can complete an opt-out form and have their student removed from the classroom, but there isn’t a standardized process for that yet. And district staff at the meeting said some teachers are using an app for parents called “Remind” to send alerts when their students are scheduled to have a 3R lesson, but they haven’t ironed out how much notice to give.

Bahr said she wants to strengthen her relationship with parents by having “Parent Nights” to discuss the curriculum and answer questions, in part because she’s receiving a lot of hateful messages from parents.

“There’s all of this heat coming back, and it’s frankly terrifying,” Bahr said. “I’m a mom. I want to go home and feel peaceful. I also feel like I’m standing on the right side of this. It’s educational, and it’s informative, and it’s their health. … I’ve had to help students find pregnancy tests in middle school, and so I know how necessary this is.”

Bahr said teaching sex ed is her favorite part of her job, but she needs more support to deal with negative feedback.

When it comes to the lesson plans, Galka said she wants the curriculum to cover drugs and alcohol, too, because students are interacting with lots of substances in their communities.

“There isn't much, if any, information on drugs and alcohol, which is something that we're seeing arise with a lot of our middle schoolers,” Galka said. “They're in situations where they're not understanding how different things affect them, or what to do if they do get into those kinds of situations, and that's not really addressed with it in this curriculum.”

At this time, only a few schools in the district have begun implementing the 3R curriculum, but the school-based clinicians still feel stretched thin. They said they can’t imagine handling the workload if all the schools got on board. And while the lesson materials are provided in English and Spanish, not all of the nurses and counselors are bilingual, making some of the Spanish delivery uneven.

Despite some of the hiccups in the rollout, older students have told Galka that they wished they had received some of these lessons when they were younger, and that it could have helped them talk about sexual abuse.

“I've had a number of students come and follow up with me after lessons, just talking about how they wish they would have known how to say certain things or what was appropriate and not appropriate at younger ages,” Galka said. “Because they have had really unfortunate things happen to them and they didn't know how to talk about it with family members, and so it has stuck with them and really caused them a lot of trauma as they've gotten older.”

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.