Elida school board debates sexual abuse awareness instruction

ELIDA — Elida schools will show sexual abuse prevention videos to students in kindergarten through sixth grade this week, in accordance with a new state law.

Ohio lawmakers adopted legislation last year requiring schools to provide age-appropriate sexual abuse instruction for children in grades K-6 and teen dating violence and sexual violence instruction for grades 7-12.

The Elida school board met in special session Saturday regarding parent complaints that some of the videos are not age appropriate, prompting debate over parental consent and board oversight of instructional materials.

The videos are produced by the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, one of nine lesson plans approved by the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce as age-appropriate for elementary students.

Board member Jaired Birks cited two videos from Fight Child Abuse program, which parents flagged as potentially inappropriate for elementary-age children due to discussion of grooming and online sexual exploitation, or sexting.

“My daughter doesn’t know what ‘sexting’ is,” said Birks, who joined board member David Peters in a motion to postpone the program and revise district policy so parents would need to opt their child in before students could watch the videos.

Both videos are part of the Fight Child Abuse series for teens, which will not be shown to K-6 students this week. Instead, videos for K-6 students discuss simpler topics like safe vs. unsafe touching and cyberbullying. The videos do not describe sex acts.

Elida schools notified parents of the upcoming lessons via email on April 24, providing a link so parents could review the materials ahead of time.

Parents who wish to excuse children must notify the district in writing by Monday.

While the district allows parents to opt their children out of sexual abuse prevention instruction, it does not send permission slips home for parents to sign.

Birks and Peters pushed their fellow board members to adopt an opt-in policy instead. Doing so would allow “parents to say yes to the material that is presented, which many in our community believes to be out of step with what is morally acceptable to show children,” Birks said.

Superintendent Joel Mengerink cautioned against an opt-in approach, which he warned could be exploited by abusive parents.

“The whole purpose of the instruction is to teach kids what isn’t acceptable when it comes to child abuse and how to report it,” Mengerink said. “If you make this an opt-in program, what parent or guardian that is abusing their children is going to opt-in to this instruction?”

The motion failed by a 2-2 vote, with Jeff Christoff and board President Jeffrey Point opposed and board member Alisa Agozzino absent.

Peters and Birks pushed for greater board oversight of curriculum throughout the meeting, asking why the board did not review or approve the Fight Child Abuse program in advance.

“Next year I would like to explore other options to see if there’s anything better out there that aligns with the values of this community,” Peters said, later citing a board policy requiring adoption of an evidence-based awareness-prevention curriculum approved by ODEW. “We’ve never done that,” he said.

The policy “says we’re going to provide appropriate instructional material and personal safety and assault prevention to all students,” Christoff said. “It doesn’t say we’re going to review it.”

Debate revolved around the board’s authority to approve curriculum vs. instructional materials — and the necessity of Saturday’s meeting, which was called less than 48 hours in advance.

“The board is not responsible for instructional materials … that is the role and duty of the administration,” Mengerink said, adding: “There certainly is not a reason for an emergency meeting here.”

Peters asked for Saturday’s meeting after listening to concerned parents, including one parent whose notice about the Fight Child Abuse program initially went to her junk inbox, he said.

“She had to search for it,” Peters said. “That’s my main concern, is that parents haven’t seen the email. We get so many emails nowadays, what is the surety that each parent has seen that and been able to review this?

“I personally would not show these videos to my children, and I would be upset if I did not see that email and my children came home talking about the video,” he said. “I think every parent has a right to decide for themselves.”