By Nikki McKim; Brian McKim contributed to this story
Concerned parents, grandparents and community members gathered at the most recent Falls City Public School Board meeting held in the Central Office on May 9, 2022.
The spillover crowd attended the regular monthly meeting after information regarding the Second Step Program was given to parents of Falls City Middle School students at the end of April.
The Falls City Education Association (FCEA) issued this release to the Journal over the weekend:
“The concern centered around the Second Step curriculum implemented in FCMS homerooms beginning this school year.
The information circulated regarding the Second Step Program and the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum was taken grossly out of context.
The claim by some critics of SEL and the Second Step Program that they support teachers is not true – as shown by their actions and lack of respect for the teachers, administration, and the board. The behavior at the board meeting was reprehensible and the complete opposite of the behaviors we promote in school.
It is the position of some educators who teach the program that the Second Step Program used in K-8 addresses SEL in a user-friendly and age-appropriate manner. It is a critical and valuable asset in the development of our students. Many teachers in the District with representation from each building are currently working with parents and the administration to earn Board support and ensure it can be used as a resource to continue helping our District’s stakeholders.”
The program at the center of the matter is the Second Step program. Second Step is a social-emotional learning (SEL) program used around the country, aims to develop appropriate social-emotional skills, such as empathy, emotion management, and problem-solving.
Second Step lessons are typically taught twice a week by trained classroom teachers and counselors. Elementary-level lessons are structured using visuals which illustrate children in various social-emotional situations. Teachers read the lesson story aloud, show the visual photo card, and offer whole-group discussions. After the talks, students are asked to reflect upon their learning.
Falls City North School has implemented the Second Step curriculum in Kindergarten through Second Grade beginning in 2017, four years before Middle School principal Jack Bangert introduced it or was hired at FCMS. North School Principal Shelly Leyden said the curriculum aligned with the Positive Behavior System (PBIS). With the alignment of PBIS and Second Step, North School started implementing Second Step in PCC (preschool) in 2019.
“Second Step curriculum is used to teach empathy, processing emotions, understanding and resolving conflicts and building positive relationships at an age-appropriate level of understanding,” said Leyden.
In June 2021, Falls City Middle School received funding from Amanda Dreier of the Southeast District Health Department and Sandy Morrissey of Region V to fund Second Step. In August 2021, FCMS Principal Jack Bangert reported during the school board meeting on the new program being implemented, “We are implementing our new SEL Second Step Curriculum in homeroom this year,” said Bangert during his report.
Bangert held a parent meeting on September 2, 2021, with a PowerPoint presentation where the Second Step curriculum was addressed and a brief discussion held.
In November 2021, a concerned Middle School parent contacted Bangert to discuss the program via email. According to Bangert, the main concern at the time from the parent was parental involvement and knowledge of the program. The topic was placed on the agenda of the next parent meeting. Another parent contacted Bangert about the program and asked if the program could be halted until after the next parents meeting, which he did.
On December 6, 2021, roughly 30 parents attended a parent meeting held at the Middle School library. Jack Bangert again had a PowerPoint presentation, this time; it was to dispel some of the “rumors and myths” that were circulating regarding the curriculum.
Bangert asked the parents to make sure they don’t undercut the rules of the school. During his presentation, he gave an example where a student said, “I thought we didn’t have to do Second Step anymore because (another student’s) mom went in and made it, so we didn’t have to anymore.” In another example, another student said they were instructed by parents and told the teacher: “Well, we walk out whenever we want to; we do not have to stay in the class.”
Bangert said critical thinking is more important than ever and “there is currently a toxic combination of religion, politics and social media that’s fueling wild conspiracy theories throughout the country. The meeting that night was about allowing parents to see everything they wanted to see and to be transparent about Second Step in order to show it was an important tool that the school needed to carry. He said if school were only about math, science, reading and not social skills, then there would be no need for the counselors, behavioral health technicians, nurses, para’s, coaches, cafeteria workers, end extracurriculars, etc.
“All we really need is teachers to teach and admin to make sure the building runs smoothly. Those students that are not able to keep up or stay out of trouble will be kicked out. No more bullying, no more worrying about kids having enough to eat, no more worrying about mental health/suicide, no more sports and activities to build teamwork and social skills. We will just prep for exams and send the students home. Is that what the community wants?” asked Bangert.
He emphasized that schools are struggling across the nation to attract qualified teachers.
“Falls City struggles to find candidates: band, science, math, coaching and administration. Schools have to fill the social void in struggling communities and as a result, people are no longer choosing the profession, said Bangert. “In Falls City, we have been fortunate. Covid has had a limited impact on the school up to this point. People are largely supportive of school staff and the school in general. But there is a threat: social media conspiracy theories trickling into our community.”
Bangert asked the parents to watch the videos and decide what they think about it. He didn’t realize it was controversial until a few weeks ago. The staff supported the use of the program and some were shocked that the program was considered controversial. The main concern was the students who would get sidetracked or off-topic.
“The program can lead to conversations around topics that are difficult such as bullying, discrimination, mental health and more. Teachers were instructed by Bangert that if they cannot or the students cannot have a reasonable and fair conversation on a topic that, they will end the topic for the day,” said Bangert. “It’s not about changing views or condemning any group, and it is about learning to get along with those who may be different without sacrificing who you are and what you believe.”
Bangert said during the December 9 meeting that he hadn’t had any parental concerns about the way teachers had implemented the program, “which is a credit to the FCMS staff.”
“No parent is forced to do anything. Parents always have options; opt out of Second Step, homeschooling or private school,” said Bangert.
He told the parents that he highly discouraged them from opting out because he works with every kid in the building and they can all benefit from the program, even his kids.
At this point of the meeting Bangert began showing the videos that parents were concerned about. Bangert then looked at the most “controversial” lesson, a lesson that was touched on at the most recent School Board Meeting.
Second Step, Seventh Grade Unit Two. He said it was “controversial” because it had prompted the December 2021 meeting.
The video lesson is titled “Gendered Based Harassment.”
The Falls City Journal reviewed the video in question and hours of other videos as part of the Second Step program with worksheets and the teacher’s lesson plans. The Journal won’t print the full audio transcript to avoid copyright issues, but it’s available for review at the Falls City Journal office. After multiple views and transcribing the video, which was under three minutes long, the only mention of gay was a girl saying she saw a boy was getting teased for hanging out with girls and he was called gay. The girl also said guys who rode her bus threw around homophobic slurs and talked about how much they hated, feared and felt disgusted by gay people.
Another boy said people called him gay and other names. There was no mention of transgender or transexual people.
Parents spoke for the program and concerns were shared. Any video or lesson plan attendees wanted to see was shown during the meeting. It was reinforced that parents can opt kids out simply by sending Middle School Principal Bangert an email. He said he stressed parents need to communicate that with him and next school year, a letter would be sent to give a more formal opt-out for the curriculum. He said after the December 6 meeting, no one formally asked for an opt out for their child. After an email a day or two later, Bangert said he never heard anything else on the topic until April 29.
Principal Bangert put together a YouTube video tutorial posted on December 9, 2021 (as of May 11, 2022, the video only had 81 views since its posting). The video was for parents and anyone else who wants to learn about the social-emotional curriculum. The video (link) is still posted on the Falls City Public School Facebook page and YouTube page.
Bangert explained why the meeting was held and that he was able to show actual lessons from an entire unit. The original video of the meeting had to be removed because it showed the Second Step videos and violated copyright. The December 9 video was created to summarize the meeting.
“A lot of this internet conspiracy stuff is just not true,” said Bangert. A parent asked how they knew every teacher was teaching it identically.
“The answer is you don’t in any subject because humans are human and you have this individual teacher and no teacher is the same and then you have a group of 20 kids who are not the same. So it doesn’t matter if it’s math class or social-emotional curriculum or P.E., it’s impossible to have it exactly the same,” said Bangert.
He said [the school] is very clear about the challenges [they] see at middle school and wanting students to be kind and be tolerant of each other.
“It’s not about replacing beliefs; it’s about respecting beliefs because we are a public school; we’re not a private school. We’re not a religious school; we’re a public school, and that means we’re an American school and so every American who walks into our building should feel comfortable and they feel it should feel like they’re safe and protected and ready to learn because that’s our job. Our job is to get kids ready for the real world,” said Bangert. “We’re not trying to be sneaky or anything, we have to follow copyright laws. If any parent has an issue, they are more than welcome to come in and I can show you.”
The Second Step curriculum was wrapped-up at FCMS on March 9, 2021
At the end of April, select parents and the board members received a packet regarding the eighth grade Second Step curriculum from Hilari Courtney. The entire curriculum is discussed in this packet lesson by lesson with explanation and concerns authored by Stacie Clayton and Lisa Logan, two Utah parents who found a link after reviewing the curriculum and found it “totally inappropriate for middle-school age children.”
The link, (which won’t be mentioned in this article to protect underaged children in the community, but is available to adults at their request by contacting the Falls City Journal) directed those who tried to access it to a page saying, “Heads up! Your browser history can be monitored without your knowledge and it can never be wiped completely. Think your internet use might be monitored? Call us at 1-866-***-****. Some websites that help individuals seeking help from an abuser may use language and warnings such as this when trying to protect someone in an abusive home.
In Utah, schools are permitted to teach an “abstinence-based” sex education program, which promotes celibacy as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy. The link redirected users to information that didn’t promote this type of sexual education, violating Utah state law. Second Step is not a sex education program and doesn’t discuss sex education, but in August, when it was implemented in Falls City Middle School, it had the link to the website in question within the teacher’s information. The link to this website, according to administration at Falls City Public School was never accessible to students. Bangert said the students were not aware of or had access to the website. He said the links were there for teachers, but Second Step removed the links in September of 2021.
“Kids never had access to any of this,” said Bangert. “That is very important for people to know. Kids never saw this. I can guarantee my teachers never even saw the links. I never saw these things.”
During the 37-minute-long School Board audience discussion last Monday night, each speaker had five minutes to speak with questions and comments directed toward Board President June Bowers, with a member of the Board or Superintendent directing clarifying questions to the chair. Under no circumstances was anyone to enter into a debate with any member of the public. Speakers were allowed to offer objective criticism of District operations and programs, but the Board encouraged members of the public to address complaints concerning the interest of personnel through the proper chain of command.
“I caution you that comments directed toward a school employee at a Public-School Board meeting may not be slanderous or may inhibit the Board’s authority to preside over a due process hearing,” said Bowers.
Hilari Courtney, the parent of a seventh grader at Falls City Public School, was the first to speak. She said her concerns were that in November, her child came home and shared that a video (“Gendered Based Harassment”) was shown at school with a transgender boy [girl] in it. The class then proceeded to discuss transgender and homosexuality and filled out worksheets.
“At this point, I asked my daughter what class this was and she said Second Step. I looked at her Power School and her agenda and nothing showed this class. Nothing has ever been sent home from the school giving them permission to have discussions with my daughter about gender identity or sexual orientation,” said Courtney. “I asked her if this was the one only a one-time thing and she said they had this class every week.”
Courtney said she asked her daughter if other videos had concerned her and she mentioned a video “with a girl about her age; she said the girl was black and that the girl said in the video she did not like it when the white friends touched her hair. I do not want my kids being taught to treat people differently because of their race. I do not want them to question. That is not what we are teaching them and that’s exactly what this video did; it put doubt in my daughter’s mind. It did not create unity,” said Courtney.
She said she had taken her daughter to Haiti for ten days, where she was among the only white children and she played with other girls, “she did their hair and makeup just like children should do.” As a mother, Courtney was worried if she had watched the video before they traveled to Haiti, her daughter may have questioned acting differently because “she was white and they were black.”
She shared that she didn’t care what someone’s sexual orientation, gender, or race was but felt it was not the school’s job to have those discussions with her child but the parents. Courtney said she watched the videos and said she would like to have her daughter given the option to opt out, which was agreed upon, but when her daughter asked the following week in class, she was told she wasn’t allowed. She also said she felt parents should be sent a letter and informed of the program because nobody knew of it. After the Parent Meeting in December, she understood a note would be sent to parents explaining Second Step and giving them an option to opt-out, but nothing happened for four months.
After researching the program, she found it was created by The Committee for Children. After researching the company, she found an article by the CEO that quoted her [Andrea Lovanhill, Chief Executive Officer, Committee for Children] as saying, “So much of the work of eradicating racism is the responsibility of white people, including queer white people, especially those in leadership positions. My fellow white queer leaders not only need to recognize but go beyond their acknowledgment of white privilege.”
Courtney said she found that concerning and she was not teaching her kids they are privileged because they are white, straight, girls or boys. “Why would we ever want these ideologies taught and if this is who’s creating the materials, we can’t believe it will not be in the materials. It’s fine if you want to teach your kids these things, but these are my children.”
The Journal reached out to The Committee for Children about the concerns brought up during the meeting and received this statement:
“Second Step curriculum is driven by rigorous research and deep community engagement––, not by political agendas. Social-emotional learning is not only about reinforcing the important life skills that kids learn from their families, like communication, decision-making, and self-discipline, but also about equipping them with tools to manage difficult conversations, challenging emotions, and stressful situations. Some of our programs also teach students how to protect themselves from unhealthy relationships, sexual harassment, and bullying. Second Step is about keeping our children safe and successful in and beyond the classroom.
Social-emotional learning centers around a strong partnership between educators and families, and we always welcome community feedback, which is why we removed the link to love is respect from our program in September 2021. We hear you and we agree that parents play the most important role in children’s education –– we get it; we’re parents too. We also know that parents across the political spectrum agree with us about the importance of teaching these foundational life skills in the classroom. Parents want schools to prioritize kids’ academic, social, and emotional success.”
Courtney spoke about the concerning link mentioned in the materials provided to parents in her packets which was banned in Utah.
She ended her time by telling the Board that there are many good companies out there that do not have this kind of backing.
“They still teach compassion, empathy and kindness, just like I teach my kids. I do not want them taught these ideologies, though. Why are we not open to looking at other programs? I feel like this is our responsibility to teach our responsibility to our kids to remove this program at the middle school level and replace it.”
After the board meeting, Courtney reached out to the Journal, via email stating, “I 100% support teachers. My mom was a teacher in the Falls City School District for 21 years. My point at the meeting was that we cannot trust a company [Committee for Children]. They had a link in bedded [sic] into one of the teaching materials.” (Editors note: Courtney listed the website and said if you go to the website, it tells children to make sure and delete their browser, etc. But, the link was never available to children or in the materials for children at District #56.) She encourages anyone to do their research on the link that has been omitted or website cfchildren.org. Continuing she said, “my concern is utilizing the same company. I completely support an SEL program at our schools, but I just cannot trust this particular company when they had this material in the program.”
At the Board Meeting, Tim Campbell of Falls City spoke after Courtney, saying he had great respect for the Falls City Public School System and is a graduate, with his three children being graduates and his five grandchildren currently attending the school.
“I am unashamedly Christian, and I believe that all of you have our children’s best interest in your hearts because I don’t believe that you would commit your valuable time to serving on this Board if you didn’t,” said Campbell.
He said he was thankful that the 2021 Nebraska Health Education Standards draft was met with opposition at the state level and never came to pass because kindergartners were to learn about cohabitating with same-gender families, first graders were to learn about gender identity, gender stereotypes and older kids about anal, oral and vaginal sex. Kirk Penner at the State Board Level had argued that the Board should leave health education decisions to local School Boards, parents and medical professionals. Second Step does not teach sexual or health education.
Campbell continued, “Penner said, why do we keep going back to the sex of our little kids? I repeat his question. Why do we have to keep going back to the sex of our little kids? The Supreme Court wrote this in Wisconsin vs. Yoder in May of 1972. The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition. They wrote that 50 years ago, and it’s still true today,” said Campbell.
[Wisconsin vs. Yoder, 1972 is an Amish Court Case where the Amish view schooling after eighth grade, “secondary school,” as impermissible exposure of their children to a “worldly” influence in conflict with their beliefs. High School emphasizes intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success and social life with other students. Amish society emphasizes informal, “learning through doing,” a life of “goodness,” rather than a life of intellect and wisdom, rather than technical knowledge.]
Campbell said the courts recognize that a mother and father’s duty in the eyes of the courts is to have the fundamental right to direct the care, upbringing and education of their own children. Parents have a spirit of sovereignty over their children into which the state cannot intrude and in the Yoder decision, the Supreme Court rightly said it is the parent’s responsibility to inoculate moral standards, religious beliefs and elements of good citizenship.
“This is especially important now in the light of conflicts over the implementation of immoral sexual theories in K-12 education. Schools have a mandate to provide basic education and for good citizenship, and they do not have a mandate or a right to teach opposing moral standards and religion that contradicts what parents are teaching their children at home. It’s very clear to see that America’s public institutions ranging from the courts to the public schools have increasingly come under attack from social radicals such as the corporation that produces and markets,” said Campbell. They’re attacking the authority of parents, and they are attacking your authority as well. This infiltration of pervasive thinking included in the Second Steps program of teaching children about concepts other than abstinence; abstinence, or sex outside of the institution of marriage is not okay.”
Editors Note: The Second Step program is not a sex education or health program. Second Step does not teach or mention sex education.
Campbell said the program is an attack on a family unit and as parents, they have a fundamental right to control the upbringing of our children by introducing them to matters of and relating to sex in accordance with personal and religious values and beliefs. Not the school, not the state and certainly not a corporation with a radical hidden agenda. He said they believe it’s hidden because of the copyright “excuses.”
Campbell believes the school system is teaching children about sexual things without consent and he does not give the school system the right to teach his children the opposite of the Christian values they’re being taught at home.
“The government schools teachers and the morally challenged have no right to devalue parents and their authority over their children,” said Campbell.
Parent and speaker Rachel Jackson said she attended the December Parent Meeting and was taken off guard by the video content shown to seventh graders, including sexual harassment and gender-based harassment. She said they made her uncomfortable and said suggestions were provided, including sending out parent information in advance regarding sensitive topics and suggestions on how to opt out. Saying this was the “bare minimum that should have occurred moving forward,” none of these things came to fruition. Jackson completed her research and discovered Committee for Children created Second Steps. She said lessons 11-13 in the eighth-grade curriculum read, “speak up and start a movement, be inclusive and change policies, stand up for change. The word disrupt is used in every objective for these individual lessons. So I will ask you again, are we teaching our children to be empathetic to others, or are we training them to be activists for a particular ideology?”
Jackson also referenced the inaccessible link.
She asked what the process would be for the SEL curriculum moving forward for review and approval; who will be doing the ongoing review of the ever-changing online review and approval? Are parents allowed to be any part of this process? What will opt out options look like in the future if the curriculum is left to stand? How will parents be receiving information on what their children will be learning in this curriculum if it is left in place?” In closing, she asked that the curriculum be taken out.
Angie Binder spoke, telling the Board she had three children go through the school and a grandson who just left for several reasons. Binder had concerns about the Second Step program calling it progressive activist and by the Board allowing these activists into the schools, they’re involving Satan. She asked who was accountable and who was monitoring this.
“To me, this literature will only brainwash our children and the way the activist group and whoever the leader in the classroom is because a lot of it’s based on your teacher who’s there, what they teach, what they allow, what they say and that’s what it is. And this is just going to prime our children’s thoughts and actions, the way the teacher is leading the way this literature is leading,” said Binder.
She suggested teaching abstinence, saying it was the best thing to teach the children.
Editors Note: Again, the Second Step program is not a sex education or health program. Second Step does not teach or mention sex education and the School is not using this program to teach children about safe or alternative sex practices.
Binder ended with a Bible verse, Romans 12:1: “I understand that’s no separation of church and state, but yet you want these kids to know good stuff, like just this, how to be good individuals, how to respect people, and not do I sleep with this guy, or this girl and all this other crud that goes along with that because kids are cannot physically and mentally take this in. They cannot process it,” said Binder.
Sandy Morrissey, Prevention Director with Region V who helped get the program funded for Falls City Middle School, told the Journal, “Second Step is an evidence-based curriculum providing life skills for our youth. The lessons help with conflict resolution, social skills, and academic achievement, to mention a few. There are informative pieces for family engagement. Community needs to understand that Second Step is not causing divisiveness, quite the opposite, it is designed to strengthen youth, families, schools, faith partners, and the community at large.”
The final speaker was Cassondra Goff, who said she was presented with a packet and did her own research. She was concerned about the Committee for Children and an article written by their CEO that stated, “We must focus on how we stand with and amplify BIOPIC LGBTQIA+ voices and disrupt societal systems acting inside and outside of the LGBTQIA+ movement that contributes to inequality and oppression.” This article was not part of the program or in the curriculum but was written by the CEO (mentioned above) of Committee for Children, the nonprofit behind Second Step.
Goff said she didn’t feel the public school was the place to be acknowledging some of these agendas, nor did she feel it was the place to be teaching religion of any sort. She told the room that she took the afternoon off the Friday before to review the videos in the program. For three hours, she watched videos knowing she wouldn’t be able to get through them all.
“I actually did not have a huge problem with any of the videos that I did watch. Note, I watched primarily eighth grade. But what is concerning to me is what I watched on Friday is now null and void on Monday,” said Goff. “What are we doing to check that this information is not being put back into our school? Because I don’t know. Like the other people who spoke before me, if you looked at (redacted link that was inaccessible for the children). But it is not appropriate for any high school child as far as I’m concerned. So what as a board do you plan to do to approve controversial topics that include like SEL, that include controversial topics? How do you plan on making it transparent to parents? Because I realized I could opt out. But after six years, I didn’t even know what was going on? How can I opt out? So how do you plan on approving these curriculums that can be ever-changing?”
Goff said she was told the information wasn’t there, but it “absolutely was there when the curriculum was approved, though it wasn’t found.
“If they, whoever put this information in the curriculum, to begin with, how do we know they’re not going to bring it back? They have broken our trust,” said Goff.
District #56 School Board member Kevin Scheitel addressed the crowd thanking everyone for coming, saying they always want parental input on things. He said they didn’t try to hide anything from anyone.
“On this critical race theory or anything. I heard over the weekend that we’re promoting Critical Race Theory and we absolutely voted against that when that came out from the State Board of Education. Scheitel said this program, approved by the Educational Service Unit (ESU), is used by 10 or 12 other schools in the area and has been used for a number of years.
The Journal reached out to Falls City Sacred Heart which, uses the program and received this statement: “We have access to Second Step (K-8) through a grant from Southeast Health Department/Four County Juvenile Services. I have used it a couple of times with a few K-4 classes during our kindness and empathy unit, but I have not used it with junior high yet, said Sacred Heart Principal Jenny Dunn. “At Sacred Heart, our intention is to use it more as a resource to supplement our Character Trait of the Month lessons and activities and not the program in its entirety. As with any curriculum materials, if they don’t align with our core values as a Catholic School, we would not use the material!”
Kevin Scheitel said he also watched the videos and felt there was nothing to see, though he hadn’t seen them all.
“I’m not going to pretend I’m not taking sides or anything here. So I didn’t; there was nothing in there that was sexually-oriented or anything that would or should affect our kids. Now, like I say, I didn’t see everything, said Scheitel. “I understand your points completely and I feel the same way you guys all do on some of that stuff. We [the Board] didn’t do anything to try to hide. I want that first and foremost. We’ve got complete trust in our administrators that you have.” Justin Courtney interrupted Scheitel asking if he had seen the handouts going around to all the teachers.
“You say you weren’t hiding anything,” said Courtney.
School Board President June Bowers stopped the meeting due to people speaking out of order and thanked everyone for coming.
Scheitel said the School Board would take another look and he appreciated the efforts of everyone coming in. He said the Board would listen to how people feel.
Audience member Steve Johansen said, “we would like to do that as soon as your meetings over-right outside. We’ll wait right outside to do that.”
And wait, they did; after the Board Meeting, according to multiple sources who confirmed the incident, an audience member verbally assaulted elected officials of the school board.
The Board decided to suspend the Second Step Curriculum at this time.
Falls City Superintendent Tim Heckenlively stated, “Parental involvement has always been a crucial component in Falls City Public Schools. Monday evening, the Falls City Board of Education heard concerns from parents about the District’s 2nd Step (SEL) curriculum. Upon hearing those concerns, the Board decided to suspend the 2nd Step (SEL) curriculum and allow the District’s Curriculum Director time to research other curriculum options. The Board looks forward to continued discussions with parents and key stakeholders to help strengthen and solidify student learning at Falls City Public Schools.”