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“Everyone is being crazy”: Conservative Delta County erupts over an effort to teach sexual education

A task force spent two years drafting a curriculum that was ultimately rejected by the Delta County School District 50J board last week amid dueling rallies and big tensions

“It’s an abomination what is happening out here,” said Bible Baptist Church pastor Gabe Skillo, left, during a protest outside a Delta County School Board meeting where sex education curriculum was discussed on May 20, 2021. (Nancy Lofholm, The Colorado Sun)

DELTA — Sex.

Couple that with education. Link it to anything other than heterosexual unions. Bring the Bible into it. And, in Delta County, expect a volatile civic tempest.

The latest controversy over sex in this conservative Western Slope county has been sparked by a progressive push to add state-recommended comprehensive sex education in the county’s schools. That new sex-ed curriculum was designed to stress lessons on consent in sexual encounters and to include teachings about the acceptance of sexual diversity.

A Delta County school district task force had been working on that new curriculum for the past two years, but the Delta County School District 50J board last week voted down that teaching plan in a way that only inflamed the issue.

“Everyone is being crazy,” is the way Delta superintendent Caryn Gibson characterized the brouhaha.

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The board unanimously voted against the augmented sex-ed proposal behind locked doors while, outside in the street, a throng of rainbow-banner-waving proponents danced and celebrated diversity — an unusual sight in a county that is deeply red and has a lengthy history of getting behind ultra-conservative causes. Opponents lined the curbs singing hymns, tossing out occasional derogatory comments, and shouting “amens” to prompts from a minister sharing Biblical admonitions about sex from the bed of a pickup truck.

Conflicting hand-lettered signs ranged from “God loves us all” and “We are human, too” to “Make America straight again” and “School board, you will answer to God if you pervert our children.”

Gay-pride parade versus preaching from a pickup

The event last week had been billed as a gay pride parade, but it was more of a gay-pride circling of dancers and drummers in the single block barricaded for the demonstration. When fundamentalist church groups got wind of it, they showed up more than two hours early to lay claim to the curbs with their lawn chairs and to park the pickup that served as a pulpit. They also nabbed all of the eight public-comment slots allotted for the meeting.

The demonstration and counter-demonstration were mostly peaceful in spite of occasional appearances by honking, flag-flapping Trump-supporting pickup drivers and the noisy clash of drumming vs. amplified preaching.

Dueling rallies in Delta last week. (Nancy Lofholm, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This is our way to say, ‘We are here, we have a voice, and we are part of the community,’” said Alicia Michelsen, who organized the gay pride segment of the event after working for years to improve sex ed in Delta schools.

“It’s an abomination what is happening out here,” said Bible Baptist Church pastor Gabe Skillo, who said he had prayed with the school board two days earlier over the decision they were about to make on sex education. Gibson denied that prayer with board members happened.

“That is ridiculous. It is 100% false,” Gibson said.

That kind of rumor-fueled back-and-forth is continuing to inflame the issue in Delta County two years after the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 1032, a bill that outlines what comprehensive sex education should include but doesn’t mandate its inclusion in school curricula. The 2019 legislation followed a  2013 law that nixed the teaching of abstinence-only sex education. It mandated the teaching of a medically accurate, evidence-based, sensitive-to-LGBTQ-youth Comprehensive Health Sexuality Education curriculum in schools that offer health classes.  

The 2019 legislation eliminated that mandate. It also added funding in the form of grants for schools wanting to teach sex ed but lacking the resources to do so.

The legislation was passed and has lingered in the midst of a storm of false claims that the requirements for comprehensive sex ed include teaching graphic sex acts to grade schoolers, promoting participation in sexual activities, pushing abortion and encouraging the changing of sexual identities.

Only eight of the 178 school districts in Colorado and one individual school have applied for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment funding to teach comprehensive sex education.

That Delta County, population 32,000, is home to one of the districts that have opted out of comprehensive sex education, and done so in a controversial fashion, is not surprising.

Delta County, which is 68% Republican, has a history of non-inclusive views when it comes to education.

In 2013, a school board member advocated castration for boys who want to transition to female. This came in response to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruling that a 6-year-old transgender girl could use the bathroom facilities for girls in her Fountain elementary school.

In more recent years, the district has made headlines for relying on school presentations by a Christian abstinence-only speaker in lieu of other sex education. The speaker, Shelly Donahue of Weld County, told students in those presentations that having premarital sex would pollute their relationships with God.  She likened girls’ brains to cooked spaghetti and boys’ brains to toaster waffles. She taught some medically incorrect lessons that compared vaginas to Hoover vacuums that would suck up any sperm in their vicinity.

Conservative Delta County parents, who stress that sex ed should be left up to parents, did not object to Donahue’s lessons.

Sen. Coram says he was “crucified” for work on sex ed bill 

In September, unhappy parents demonstrated their feelings about homosexuality when they lined a fence to yell anti-gay profanities at Gov. Jared Polis as he visited a Delta school.

State Sen. Don Coram, a Republican who represents District 6 that neighbors Delta County, found out how nasty feelings over sex education can get when he aligned with Colorado Christian University lobbyists to help craft the 2019 sex ed bill. Coram, a prime sponsor of the measure, said he wanted to make sure the bill would have no mandate. 

But Coram’s name on a sex ed bill was enough to turn rabid rumor-mongering against him. Coram was accused of “promoting the teaching of perversion.”

“I got crucified for taking a piece of s**t and making it workable,” Coram said.

His family and friends were bullied on the streets and on social media. He said the onslaught came from people who hadn’t read the bill and were stirred up over rumors about what was in it.

Groups of protesters organized outside of the Delta County School Board meeting on May 20, 2021, where sex ed curriculum was discussed. (Nancy Lofholm, The Colorado Sun)

Those rumors haven’t died down in the ensuing two years — at least not in Delta.

“Comprehensive sex education, in my opinion as a Baptist preacher, is of the devil. It is out of hell,” Skillo said while hanging tight to a Bible during the gay pride event. “It’s OK to teach anatomy, but not the other stuff that encourages pornography, masturbation and frankly, things I do not want to say.”

Skillo called his 10-year-old son Zion over to give his opinion on what he was seeing in the throng of LGBTQ youth and their supporters in the street.

“Son, what do you think of the group in the street?” Skillo asked.

“They’re stupid!” his son said.

“Give me more words,” Skillo told him.

“They are weird. It’s horrible,” the boy responded. “They are dancing weirdly and they have weird shirts on.”

That kind of reaction has been fueled by the Family Policy Alliance, an arm of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family religious empire. The alliance promotes the idea that comprehensive sex ed requires teachers to teach that “sex activity is always a good choice,” and to promote “teaching children they might have been born in the wrong body.”

The alliance also alleges that Planned Parenthood is an evil presence behind sex ed. Online alliance materials promulgate the notion that Planned Parenthood promotes sex education in schools because the organization “makes money off of sexually active women and girls.” Planned Parenthood denies that.

The alliance opposes any teachings about sexual diversity because of potential “further harm — physical, mental, emotional or spiritual — to those struggling with their identity in this way.”

The Learning Council, a 25-year-old nonprofit based in Paonia that supports alternative education opportunities, is working to counter that kind of propaganda locally. The group has taken on the job of helping to craft more meaningful sex education along with holding workshops on beekeeping, tree pruning and African drumming.

The organization is holding an ongoing series of sex ed classes for adults and is planning a community-wide forum in July to “demystify comprehensive sex education.”

“We are not going to stop talking about this,” said Alicia Michelsen, director of The Learning Council.

Neither is Lauren Ziccardi. She has taught third and fourth grades in Hotchkiss for eight years, and said sex education in her school currently consists of an hourlong lecture about puberty followed by the passing out of free deodorant sticks to students.

Health class is a videotaped lecture from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Gibson confirmed that fifth-grade students in Delta schools are only given a lesson about puberty via a videotaped lecture from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Gibson said she doesn’t know anything about the complimentary deodorant.

That one-time class is the end of sex education in Delta County until students get to one of the district’s three high schools. Gibson said health classes   ̶  they aren’t called sex ed classes   ̶ are part of the curriculum for all the high schools. Those classes are done with help from local medical professionals, Gibson said.  

Ziccardi said she would like to see more — much more.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about what type of sex education we are promoting. Unfortunately, it has turned into a homophobic thing,” Ziccardi said.

Ziccardi said she sees students suffering in school, especially those who identify as LGBTQ. A Healthy Kids Colorado survey taken in Delta schools in 2018 and 2019 revealed that 16% of students identified as LGBTQ. A survey by the nonprofit Tri-County Health Network found a quarter of Western Slope kids in grades 6-12 said they didn’t feel they had a trusted adult they could talk to about important matters such as sex.

Ray Sanchez, a Delta resident and former school bus driver, joined in the protest over sex education in schools. “I am a Christian, and the Bible says ‘no’ to things that they are saying ‘yes’ to. God loves us all, but he gives us rules about things like that.” (Nancy Lofholm, The Colorado Sun)

Lifelong Delta resident and former school bus driver Ray Sanchez illustrates that kind of discomfort with the topic.

As he watched the group demonstrating in the street last week, the soft-spoken Sanchez said, “I am a Christian, and the Bible says ‘no’ to things that they are saying ‘yes’ to. I can’t even say those things to a lady because they are perverted. God loves us all, but he gives us rules about things like that.”

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Michelsen said she hopes residents like Sanchez can be part of the upcoming forum to hash over these thorny issues.

“These are my neighbors. These are people who care about children’s well-being,” she said. “I think some are willing to meet halfway.”

Gibson, the superintendent, said the district will continue to listen to all sides of the sex-ed conundrum and will allow all parents to preview high school health-education materials that include lessons on developing healthy relationships, consent, drug and alcohol use, prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases and pregnancy avoidance.

She said the district also plans to add more counselors and social workers in the schools as it carries out its motto: “Caring, Challenging, Learning…Every student, Every Day!”

Gibson said she believes the district can do that.

“But,” she said, “we’ve just got to calm down.”

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