The Washington Post
In Nebraska politics, an early ‘grooming’ debate
Unproven sex-ed claim helped propel far-right school board candidates
kearney, neb. — Last year, when the state board of education proposed new sex-education standards for teaching about issues such as sexual orientation, gender identity and consent, a retired pediatrician in this central Nebraska town reached out to Gov. Pete Ricketts and state lawmakers.
“This is NOT Sex Ed as anyone knows it,” Sue Greenwald wrote in a July 16, 2021, email obtained by The Washington Post. Lessons that met these standards, she wrote, would be “‘grooming’ children to be sexual victims.”
It was a shocking claim, and it was catching on — repeated by Greenwald, by members of the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition, a group she co-founded to oppose the standards, and embraced by Ricketts (R) himself. The message also spread through screenings at libraries and churches of “The Mind Polluters,” billed as an “investigative documentary” that “shows how the vast majority of America’s public schools are prematurely sexualizing children.”
Grooming erupted as a national issue earlier this year, but this state in America’s heartland has been roiled by that attack on comprehensive sex education since last spring, providing a unique window into a newly inflamed debate. The unsubstantiated claim helped activate an army of self-described Nebraska patriots who rose up against the standards, took over the local Republican Party and propelled a wave of far-right candidates for local and statewide school boards, a Washington Post examination found. Earlier this month, these activists were part of a broader, anti-establishment insurgency that toppled leaders of the state Republican Party.
The term “groomer” has become a catchall epithet hurled by the right wing against the left, particularly against advocates for LGBT people, who have become the target of a recent surge in violent threats and attacks. The Post’s examination focused on the specific claim that modern sex education — including lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity — makes children more vulnerable to pedophiles.
Greenwald and others who have endorsed that claim acknowledged to The Post that there is no scientific body of research that shows such lessons make children more likely to be victimized. The American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics both back a comprehensive approach to sex ed that includes discussions of sexual orientation, contraception and consent. Leading child abuse experts say that arming children with information helps protect them against harm.
Nonetheless, the claim that comprehensive sex ed amounts to grooming has simmered on the right for decades, often fanned by Christian conservatives who disapprove of same-sex relationships and favor home schooling and private schools over public education, The Post found. The foundation was laid in part by Judith Reisman, a self-styled expert who opposed gay rights, claimed that gay people are more likely to sexually abuse children, and spent decades trying to discredit pioneering work by the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.
Reisman, who died last year, makes multiple appearances in “The Mind Polluters” to bolster the argument that modern sex education makes children more vulnerable to predators. Greenwald and candidates endorsed by a political committee she helped launch have promoted the film, and much of their criticism of the proposed standards echoed Reisman’s views.
Paul Hazard, a former state trooper who dubbed the proposed sex-ed standards “a pedophile’s dream,” was the top votegetter in the May primary among eight candidates for the Kearney school board. Sherry Jones, a retired educator who has said the standards “sealed” her decision to run for an open seat on the state school board, garnered more than twice as many primary votes as Danielle Helzer, who supported the sex-ed framework. Elections for the local and state school boards are nonpartisan.
“Vote for SHERRY!!! Helzer wants to groom your kids for pedophiles & traffickers,” one Jones supporter wrote on Facebook. Helzer, 36, is a former teacher who has screened volunteers for the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program.
“I don’t take it personally because I know it’s not true, but I don’t take it lightly,” Helzer, who as the runner-up will move on to the general election in November, said in an interview. “People are genuinely fearful of their kids being sexually abused, and that fear has driven them to use grooming as a political weapon.”
Jones and Hazard did not respond to requests for comment.
In an email to The Post, Greenwald, 64, wrote that as a pediatrician who has examined abused children and testified in court as an expert witness, she believes there are similarities between materials currently used in public school sex-ed programs and the sexually explicit language and images used by pedophiles.
“The fact that they are already desensitized or ‘groomed’ by a trusted adult to accept sexual language and images as appropriate could make it that much easier for a predator to gain that child’s cooperation in understanding and accepting sexual demands,” Greenwald wrote.
A songwriter becomes a crusader
Reisman was not trained as a psychologist or sociologist or sex researcher. She had worked as a songwriter for the children’s television program “Captain Kangaroo” in the 1970s. Then, concerned about the effect of television on children, she earned a doctorate in communications in 1980, according to her résumé.
Her 10-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted years earlier by a neighbor boy who had been looking at his father’s Playboy magazines, Reisman later recalled in an essay, and she focused some of her research on pornography. But she made a name for herself by criticizing Kinsey, whose work had helped to usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Reisman highlighted data he had published about children’s orgasms, claiming that his work had justified child sexual abuse and triggered a cultural decline.
Her work caught the attention of conservatives in Washington, and in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department approved a grant of more than $700,000 that she used to study cartoon images of children in Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse magazines. The fact that the grant had been awarded on a noncompetitive basis, coupled with questions about Reisman’s credentials and an auditor’s finding that the study as originally proposed could be done for $60,000, fueled congressional oversight hearings.
Reisman defended her work in a 1985 Washington Post op-ed, writing that her efforts to catalogue depictions of children engaged in sexual or violent activities would lay a foundation for preventing abuse. “When it is completed, I believe the citizenry will consider their $734,000 well spent,” she wrote.
The 1986 report was harshly criticized by some academics on a peer-review panel. The Justice Department declined to publish it. The agency eventually made it publicly available but did not endorse its methodology or findings.
Reisman went on to a career as an independent researcher, and later as a research professor at the Liberty University School of Law and at the evangelical university’s School of Behavioral Sciences, though she was not trained as a lawyer or psychologist. Her advocacy helped prompt the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University to disclose that a pedophile’s diary had been the source of the data on children’s orgasms.
She likened school clubs that supported LGBT students to Hitler Youth groups, claiming that both sought to cut children off from their parents’ traditions and beliefs, a review of her writings shows. She praised “Pink Swastika,” a widely denounced book whose authors claim that gay people were “the guiding force behind many Nazi atrocities.” And she claimed gay adults were trying to persuade children to be gay using “vigilant and organized wooing.”
Reisman was dedicated to fighting what she called “Kinseyan” sex education that she said was becoming the norm in the United States. A 1990 book she co-wrote argued that modern sex education was tainted with a “gay agenda” and a “pedophile agenda.”
Over the years, Reisman continued claiming links between sex education and pedophilia, though the terminology shifted: What she and her allies once called “Kinseyan” sex education got a new name, “comprehensive sexuality education,” or CSE.
In 2012, she spoke at a gathering of the powerful network of Republican donors and activists known as the Council for National Policy, according to a confidential agenda obtained by the watchdog group Documented. “Action steps” circulated after the session, also obtained by Documented, included a call for investigating sex educators “for criminal ‘grooming,’ lowering children’s ... resistance to both pedophile predation and victimization.”
Those who echo Reisman’s views today often cite an FBI agent’s 2002 congressional testimony describing how pedophiles aim to “sexually arouse children” and “expose them to sexual acts before they are naturally curious.” Sex-education materials do the same thing, critics argue.
Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International, an Arizona-based nonprofit that works with Greenwald’s group and opposes CSE and LGBT rights, wrote in an email to The Post: “While there is no empirical evidence supporting the claims that CSE can make children more vulnerable to sexual abuse, there is ample evidence based on the many CSE programs Family Watch has analyzed that an alarming number of popular CSE programs utilize the same techniques often used by pedophiles to sexualize children or groom children to engage in sex.”
David Finkelhor, a child abuse expert at the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said research on comprehensive sex education shows that it reduces risky sexual behavior and may be in part responsible for decreases in teen pregnancy and early onset of sexual activity. Research also suggests that sex education — including teaching children the proper names of private body parts — helps “prevent grooming rather than to make them vulnerable to grooming,” Finkelhor said.
Reisman, he added, for years took “extreme and alarmist positions that are far outside the bounds of social science findings about children and sex education.”
Proposed standards prompt backlash
On March 10, 2021, Nebraska’s education department released proposed health-education standards, including grade-by-grade guidelines for sex education. Kindergartners would learn medically accurate terms for body parts, including genitalia, and about interracial and same-sex families. They would also learn about “consent” and “how to clearly say no.” First-graders would learn the definitions of gender identity and gender-role stereotypes. The meaning of sexual orientation would be explained in third grade.
Opposition was led by Greenwald and other residents of Kearney, a college town in an agricultural community. It is the seat of government for Buffalo County, where three out of five voters are Republicans. Donald Trump twice carried the predominantly White county of about 50,000 people.
Eight days after Nebraska officials released the standards, parents and grandparents formed a private Facebook group, which became a key organizing tool of the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition.
Kearney resident Kathy Adams, 67, a retired nurse, recalled printing the standards out and using a yellow highlighter and red pen to register her objections. “Pornography,” she called the standards. Homosexuality is at odds with her Christian faith, she told The Post, and she questioned the idea that a person’s gender identity could be different from the sex they were assigned at birth.
Adams said she also was concerned about the effect of peer pressure and social media, remembering that when she worked as a middle school teaching assistant a few years ago, “all of sudden it was like a fad and it was kind of taking off, either claiming to be gay or claiming to be transgender.” The proposed sex-ed framework would make children curious to take risks, she added, and would “make it easier for kids to get abused.”
By May 2021, the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition counted more than 14,000 followers on Facebook. Slater said Family Watch International provided advice and technical support for the coalition. Greenwald, who in the Facebook group called Slater “an extraordinary mentor,” described the coalition to The Post as grass roots and Nebraska-led.
Slater has written that teaching children that homosexuality is normal is part of a broad effort to “justify behavior that is inherently destructive to both society and to the individual.” She told The Post that her organization condemns imparting any information that would “sexualize children,” including lessons about heterosexual sex.
The Protect Nebraska Children Coalition helped build a groundswell against the standards by starting a petition drive, lobbying public officials and launching a Facebook campaign targeting the Nebraska Department of Education and some state school board members. “#Abolishnde,” said one July 2021 Facebook post featuring photos of drag queens next to state education officials. “Get your kids out of Nebraska public schools.”
By then, Greenwald had been making her case to Ricketts, the governor, for months, emails show. In the email she sent to a legislative aide on June 23 and then forwarded to three state lawmakers and a staffer to Ricketts in July, Greenwald claimed that the goal of CSE is to “unmoor children from their parents’ values.”
She elaborated in her email to The Post, saying that a CSE curriculum already in some schools, developed by the nonprofit Advocates for Youth, teaches 10th-grade students about forms of contraception they might choose if they are afraid of their parents finding out. “Parents want excellent public education, free from sexual content, religion or political and gender ideology, just as it has been for generations,” she told The Post.
In the CSE curriculum that Greenwald flagged, when lessons in older grades turn more explicitly to sex and sexuality, assignments call for children to talk with their parents about their values, a review of the curriculum shows. It does suggest that teachers can discuss options for teenagers who want to use birth control without their parents’ knowledge, one of which is talking about forms of contraception that are easier to hide. Lessons in early grades focus on naming body parts and respecting personal boundaries.
As an example of “sexually explicit” terms taught to young children, Greenwald pointed to language describing the vagina and penis, but the descriptions come from a page labeled “teacher’s use only . . . not to be distributed to students.” She also said she objected to material that “normalizes masturbation” and “describes orgasm in detail.”
Masturbation is mentioned in a seventh-grade lesson as an activity that carries no risk of sexually transmitted disease, along with kissing on the lips and holding hands, the review shows. The lesson on orgasm is designated for 12th-graders.
Advocates for Youth said in a statement to The Post that opponents of comprehensive sex education misrepresent what it teaches. If parents examine the curriculum themselves, the statement said, they will find it “encourages students to think critically, act responsibly and respect each other’s boundaries and diversity.”
As they attacked the proposed curriculum, Greenwald and likeminded activists had a powerful ally in Ricketts, who called for the standards to be scrapped just one day after their release and then toured the state to galvanize opposition. At a July 1 “Protect Our Kids & Schools” town hall meeting he held, Ricketts referenced Greenwald: “These standards are sexualizing our children. I talked to one pediatrician who said this is ‘Grooming 101.’ ”
‘We know our opponent now’
Drew Blessing, a Kearney school board member, early on joined the Protect Nebraska Children group on Facebook and tried to correct what he called “a ton of misinformation” about the proposed standards. But Blessing said he was shut out from the private group over the summer.
Some foes of the standards accused him of being a “groomer” in emails, he said.
“We’re talking about public schools, not Christian schools,” said Blessing, 34, who is active in his church. “We are not trying to teach kids to be gay or trans . . . but we have to acknowledge these differences exist and that we all deserve kindness and respect.”
Greenwald said Blessing was excluded from the Facebook group after “multiple complaints” from other participants, which she did not detail.
On July 29, 2021, Nebraska education officials announced revised standards that omitted references to genitalia, sexual orientation and same-sex and interracial families. Gender identity would not be introduced until seventh grade, and “consent” would not be mentioned until eighth grade. School districts would not be required to adopt the standards.
Protect Nebraska Children Coalition opposed this draft, too, arguing that it still contained Kinsey-inspired CSE, according to materials posted to the group’s Facebook page. One standard highlighted as objectionable said: “Describe ways to show dignity and respect for all people.” Greenwald said that standard was “intentionally vague” and could open the door to “divisive” ideas such as critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.
Nebraska officials announced Sept. 3 they were shelving the standards. Greenwald issued a rallying cry.
“We know our opponent now; who they associate with and who funds them,” she wrote that day on Facebook. “We know who our allies are in the Legislature and the Governor’s office. We know who to support and who to replace on all our respective local school boards. . . . We will not be caught sleeping again.”
In November, Greenwald and other leaders of her group launched the Protect Nebraska Children political action committee to endorse candidates for local and state school boards. Michael Meyer, a Kearney health insurance agent who had testified before the state board against the sex-ed standards, helped candidates backed by the new political
committee set up websites.
“I’ve been more politically active in the last year than I was in my entire life combined. And I am 54 years old,” he told The Post.
Soon, “The Mind Polluters” began showing around Nebraska. Adams, the resident who took a pen and highlighter to the standards, who like Meyer had not been involved in politics, said she organized several screenings at Kearney Public Library.
The movie was produced last year by Mark and Amber Archer, a Christian couple from Indiana whose “statement of faith” on the website of their Fearless Features filmmaking ministry describes homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexuality as “sexual immorality,” grouped with bestiality and incest. The Archers did not respond to requests for comment.
The movie claims students “are being groomed for sex with pedophiles” and says parents are obligated as Christians to remove their children from public schools.
The film became a political organizing tool, as many Protect Nebraska Children Pac-backed candidates either hosted screenings or attended them and spoke to audience members afterward, according to social media reviewed by The Post.
Helzer, the state school board candidate in the district that in
cludes Kearney, attended a screening in March 2022, hosted by her opponent, Jones, at Jones’s church. In a Facebook post, Helzer said she thought it was “weak in research but strong in scare tactics.”
Mutiny in Kearney
Starting in February, a debate over sex education erupted in Florida and began drawing national media attention. Gov. Ron Desantis (R) was pushing what a spokeswoman called “an antigrooming bill,” which barred teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with young children. Opponents derided the legislation as “don’t say gay.”
Over the three previous years, Twitter averaged 940 mentions per day of the term “groomer,” according to an analysis by Advance Democracy Inc., a nonpartisan nonprofit that conducts public interest research. On March 28, the day Desantis signed the bill, that jumped to more than 11,000 mentions. By April 6, it had climbed to more than 80,000 mentions.
A Post analysis also found an increase in grooming chatter after March 28 on platforms favored by right-wing activists, such as Gab, Patriots.win and Telegram.
By then, Christopher Rufo, a
right-wing influencer credited with spearheading attacks on critical race theory, had turned his attention to grooming, his Twitter account shows. “Grooming has a range of definitions: one can be groomed into an ideology, groomed into a gender identity, or groomed for physical abuse,” he wrote in one April Twitter post. Another April post described public schools as “hunting grounds for sexual predators.” It linked to an essay he wrote citing a 2004 study by scholar Charol Shakeshaft, who estimated that 10 percent of K-12 students receive unwanted sexual attention from a school employee.
In an interview, Shakeshaft told The Post that she is “distraught” that her research has been used to justify claims that sex education amounts to grooming. She supports teaching comprehensive sex education. “It gives the child a set of tools to help keep themselves safe,” she said.
Rufo told The Post that Shakeshaft has done important research that deserves federally funded further investigation, adding that he finds it “quite strange that she is ‘distraught’ that the public is learning more about this problem and expressing concern.”
While grooming was peaking on social media, central Nebraska was starting to see the political effect of the attacks on comprehensive sex education.
After their victory over the standards, the newly emboldened activists took on the Buffalo County Republican Party. Almost 100 people signed up to be delegates to the county GOP’S biennial convention on March 31, nearly triple the number in three previous election cycles, records show.
“We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” said Buffalo County Election Commissioner Lisa Poff, whose office is required to verify that delegates are registered Republicans.
At the convention, the surge of delegates elected a new slate of officers — nearly all of whom had been involved in the sex-ed fight. Greenwald was named state committeewoman. Kirby Wilson, a 56-year-old Kearney businessman who quoted a Bible passage referring to “homosexual offenders” at one state school board meeting, was tapped as state committeeman. Joe Maul, a 54-year-old insurance adjuster who had helped start a group called the Central Nebraska Patriots, which also opposed the standards, was elected chairman.
The outgoing slate of officers had not supported the standards, according to several people who attended the convention, but they had not been on the front lines to oppose them either. Faced with a crowd of insurgents, none of the current officers sought reelection. None responded to calls or emails from The Post.
“They didn’t work hard enough so they got replaced,” Maul said.
J.L. Spray, a Nebraska GOP national committeeman who attended the convention, said party leaders in roughly a dozen other counties were supplanted in recent months by activists mobilized, in part, by the fight over sex education.
On the eve of the May primary, James Clark, the Buffalo County party’s new vice chairman, was setting up folding chairs for the monthly meeting at the Kearney library. Clark, 69, had testified against the standards and said the debate was a major reason he decided “it’s time” to get involved.
Clark had never been to a local party meeting before his own election. “I was never invited. It was like they didn’t know me,” Clark said, grinning. “They know me now.”
About 50 people attended the meeting, mostly middle-aged folks and seniors. Maul waxed nostalgic about a time when his parents didn’t lock the front door. Whether anyone was “gay or straight” was never discussed. Parents were responsible for warning their kids about the neighborhood “pervert.”
“There’s been a lot of people that have woken up to the fact that the public school system now no longer teaches reading, writing and ’rithmetic,” he told the receptive crowd, adding that teachers are trying to “usurp the parents’ responsibility and teach our kids about sexuality, gender, you name it. And when did that happen and why? As Christian conservatives, why would we ever agree with that?”
In the next day’s primary, all four of the state school board candidates endorsed by the Protect Nebraska Children PAC advanced to the general election. For seats on the Kearney school board, only one of the four candidates the political committee backed did not garner enough primary votes to compete in November.
Earlier this month, Protect Nebraska Children Coalition members were among the newly minted Republican activists who flooded the party’s state convention, held in Kearney. Many had been mobilized by false claims of election fraud and a divisive gubernatorial primary. And much like leaders of the Buffalo County GOP in late March, leaders of the state party faced a mutiny.
The drama began a few days earlier, when half a dozen Republicans at odds with the sitting GOP governor were denied credentials to attend the convention. Among them was Matt Innis, a former U.S. Senate candidate and prominent opponent of the proposed sex-ed standards.
On Saturday, Innis, 51, was arrested for trespassing at the convention. He later regained entry. The state party chairman was sacked and a number of party officers immediately resigned.
“When I traveled the state to talk about the standards, I would tell people they no longer have the option not to pay attention,” Innis said. “They have to be involved so the radical left doesn’t indoctrinate our children anymore. People have woken up.”