In October 2019, the Hillsboro school board in Washington County unanimously adopted a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.
While the vote had no dissenters, the topic was anything but uncontroversial. The curriculum was approved at the conclusion of a more-than-three-hour meeting that drew hundreds of attendees. Some who addressed the board during the meeting expressed strong support for the curriculum. Others implored the school board not to support it, citing "explicit" and "inappropriate" course materials and lesson plans.
With the curriculum up for review every two years, Hillsboro Online Academy student Ceph Tronco is worried the next school board will side with the critics next time.
Tronco appreciates Hillsboro's sex-ed curriculum in part because it teaches students about different sexual orientations and gender identities.
It always bothered Tronco when family members and friends would describe the junior as "a beautiful young woman."
"I always hated it," Tronco said. "But I could never quite figure out why."
Looking back, discomfort about interactions like that, and Tronco's love for a Greek myth featuring a gender-nonbinary protagonist, make more sense to Tronco now.
Early last year, Tronco's understanding that they were nonbinary began to solidify, they said.
"I'm very much happy to be out and to be a person, realizing I'm comfortable with myself," Tronco said. "It also has been a time of people saying stuff that's hurtful, or policies being passed that are hurtful."
Three of the Hillsboro school board members who voted to approve the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that Tronco supports are now up for re-election. A fourth is not seeking a new term.
That means control of the seven-member board is at stake in the May 18 election.
Candidates Joe Everton, Ben Wolfe, Monique Ward and Mary Phelps have been campaigning as a slate backed by a political action committee called Communities for Sensible Schools. The PAC has donated to all four campaigns.
Everton, Wolfe and Ward also are supported by Free Oregon, a political action committee that advocates for the outright removal of comprehensive sexuality education from Oregon schools, according to its website.
Free Oregon's founder, Tigard resident Ben Edtl, describes himself on that site as a supporter of "the nationalist/populist movement started by President Donald J. Trump."
While it doesn't go as far as Free Oregon, Communities for Sensible Schools calls for changes to the Hillsboro School District's approach to sex-ed on its website, too.
In a "Values" section, the group says it wants to see the Hillsboro School District "work more closely with parents in the development of Comprehensive Sexual Education (CSE) and a robust opt-out" and "provide transparency to parents on all issues impacting their children."
Reached for comment, all four candidates confirmed that their views on comprehensive sexuality education are in line with Communities for Sensible Schools.
Challengers outline views
Wolfe said he was dismayed when the school board approved the sex-ed curriculum in 2019 despite opposition from parents like him.
"This is one reason why I decided to run for school board," Wolfe said in a written statement provided to the News-Times, a sister publication of the Portland Tribune. "We need representation on the board to make a change for the no longer silent majority."
Everton, who sat on the advisory committee that recommended adoption of the curriculum in 2019, echoed Wolfe's rationale.
"If the board cannot represent the interests of a large group of parents and students, we face a problem of representation," wrote Everton in an email. "That is a big part of why I am running."
Everton, Ward and Phelps' objections to comprehensive sexuality education in Hillsboro focus on its approach to abstinence. Along with Wolfe, they raise concerns about "explicit" lesson plans and course materials. All four candidates stress that it should be easier for parents to opt a child out of sex-ed lessons they don't believe are appropriate.
They have less to say on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity, the topics Tronco is concerned won't be taught in Hillsboro if a new school board majority tosses out comprehensive sexuality education. When asked whether they believe students should be taught in school about different sexual orientations and gender identities, each candidate gave a nearly identical answer.
"Concerning teaching on identity topics, I do not think we should teach beyond the state standard," Ward wrote in an emailed response to questions. She also listed a directive that fifth- and sixth-grade teachers should use the terms "people with penises" and "people with vaginas," instead of "males" and "females," among examples of areas of Hillsboro's sex-ed curriculum that she believes are not age-appropriate.
"I do not believe we should exceed the state standard," wrote Everton on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity, adding, "It is appropriate for children of all ages to be taught respect and kindness for all, and tolerance for differences. As for what age to teach about the specifics, I know there is a difference of opinion in our community. This is why I want to improve our process, to address this difference, and find consensus. I seek fairness for all."
"I believe we need to teach children at all ages to value and respect everyone," Wolfe stated. "In regards to identity, I do not believe we should exceed the state standards."
In her own statement, Phelps wrote, "The foundational teaching needs to be that we are all unique, and regardless of our differences, everyone is deserving of kindness. Furthermore, all family support structures should be valued and respected. The state standards provide the timing as to when concepts regarding sexual orientation and gender identity are taught."
In line with state standards, Hillsboro's curriculum teaches students to recognize and communicate about different sexual orientations and gender expressions, starting in kindergarten.
Tronco is not the only nonbinary student in Hillsboro who supports the district's approach to teaching about sexuality and gender.
Danny Adzima, a gender-nonbinary senior in the Hillsboro School District, was a student representative to the school board in 2019, when the board approved the current sex-ed curriculum. Their father, Chris Adzima, said Danny has faced bullying about their gender identity and sexual orientation, driving them to switch schools and even to contemplate suicide.
Chris Adzima says the more students learn about different sexual orientations and gender identities, the less likely they are to bully.
"Bullies tend to focus on the abnormalities of somebody and the reasons why they're abnormal to cause them pain," Adzima said. "If these curricula teach that that is not abnormal, that it's not something that's broken, then the bullies don't have the fulcrum to apply that pressure."
Tronco plans to return to Glencoe High School next year, after spending this year at Hillsboro Online Academy due to the pandemic.
The speech and debate team member and self-proclaimed "science nerd" who collects stickers of NASA's Mars rover and loves learning about octopuses is excited to be back in class, they said.
But the leadup to Tronco's first year back to in-person school since coming out also comes with some fear.
"I want to know if I'm going to have a school board that is going to back me up" if a teacher refuses to use their pronouns or if there's an issue with access to a gender-neutral bathroom, Tronco said.