By Khalida Sarwari and Kristi Myllenbeck
In classrooms, district offices and school board rooms around the county, the conversation lately has pivoted to one subject: sex.
Everyone from parents to educators seems to be talking about it. More specifically, they’re arguing about how best to present the sensitive topic to impressionable prepubescent youths while complying with a new state law that put extra demands on sexual education courses. For some districts, that has meant completely redoing their curriculum, a move that has been met with open arms by some parents and hostility from others.
At the center of the controversy is Health Connected, a Redwood City nonprofit that several districts in the region have contracted to teach a sex education program called Teen Talk. The program was updated following passage of the California Healthy Youth Act, which went into effect in January 2016 and requires school districts to provide comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education once in middle school and once in high school.
It also requires districts to address such hot-button issues as the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, gender identities and sexual orientations.
What rankles some is the approach school districts have taken or are planning to take.
“We use a lot of scenarios as a way to really cultivate critical thinking, student engagement and give students an opportunity to think about who in their lives they can reach out to as resources,” explained Abi Karlin-Resnick, executive director of Health Connected.
To some parents, however, those “scenarios” are inappropriate because they reference illegal activities such as underage drinking. It hasn’t helped that the preface to the middle school curriculum states it is for 14- to 18-year-old students.
Karlin-Resnick said the age range was a “pretty unfortunate typo.” The middle school curriculum is actually designed for 12- to 14-year-old students but its preface mistakenly picked up the same words as the high school curriculum’s, she said.
A section outlining different sex acts—vaginal, anal and oral—also has drawn the ire of some parents. In response, Health Connected changed the pronoun used in descriptions of the acts from the second to the third person (in other words, from you to he or she), but defended the importance of keeping the section in the curriculum.
“If they were teaching HIV prevention education then you’d have to teach these three types of sexual behaviors,” Karlin-Resnick said.
The Healthy Youth Act bill was authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber and sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Equality California, Forward Together, and the Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. Its aim was to address gaps in what students were learning in school and expand and strengthen existing requirements, which were last reformed in 2004.
Until now, no sex ed was required other than HIV prevention. While many districts did provide sex ed, there is no way to determine to what degree, according to Karlin-Resnick.
Among districts in Santa Clara County in various stages of implementing the Health Connected curriculum are Cupertino Union, Palo Alto Unified, Campbell Union, Cambrian and Sunnyvale. Saratoga and Los Gatos are both taking their own approaches.
Though it’s not the only nonprofit offering a comprehensive sex-ed program, Health Connected is just one of a few that have so far been vetted by the state Department of Education.
Cupertino sparked outcry
Outcry over the Teen Talk curriculum began at a March 14 public hearing before the Cupertino Union School District and peaked two weeks later at a meeting attended by more than 150 people.
Some described the curriculum as “too graphic” and “not age appropriate,” others suggested it did not align with their cultural values, and some complained that it explicitly described oral, vaginal and anal sex.
District parent Sri Sarma told the school board at the March 28 meeting she reviewed the curriculum when it was on display at the teacher resource center from Feb. 15 to March 3 and did not like what she saw.
“The data in it was explicit; it was extremely provocative,” she said. “It was written with too much suggestion. The entire approach was all about perform, not about inform. The entire assumption made by the (curriculum) that we reviewed was that all our children are already sexually active.”
Because the board vote was 2-2, with one member abstaining, the new curriculum failed to pass.
A month later, the district is still deciding what to do and waiting for the board to provide direction.
Rachel Nolan, a seventh-grade science teacher at Cupertino Middle School, said students will not receive any sex education this school year.
“We were told that our old curriculum was out of compliance with the law so we couldn’t teach the old one or the new one,” she said. “So the only thing that I’m allowed to teach … is just anatomy–anatomy of the reproductive system, but that is entirely it.”
Nolan said looking back, she believes the curriculum didn’t pass for several reasons including confusion over the material and the spread of misinformation.
“Listening to what (parents) were upset about with the new curriculum, it was confusing to me because we were already teaching the three types of sex,” she said “That was already in there.”
She said that the previous curriculum was very similar to Teen Talk, except for the teaching approach and the required references to gender identity and homosexual relationships.
“Parents were upset about the teaching method, which was more engaging, and would get the kids to talk about it, talk through issues, it was more focused on social aspects,” she said. “The old curriculum was a PowerPoint and worksheets and that was it.”
Nolan said she still feels hurt over the board decision and reaction from parents.
“I think the last thing, the reason some board members voted against it, is a lack of trust in teachers. That’s what I’ve been feeling most,” she said.
Nolan also said that in her experience, most seventh-grade students benefit from training, regardless of their background.
“With my students, yes they have their cultures, but their main culture is being a middle school student, and the Internet is their culture,” she said. “When parents say (the curriculum) is not culturally appropriate, they’re speaking for themselves and not their students. I think culture has nothing to do with it. I think all the students are ready to have the correct information about their bodies and what’s happening to them. And right now all they have is the Internet, and their parents aren’t talking to them because they don’t think they’re ready. The curriculum is age appropriate and that takes precedence over anything else.”
All Cupertino district parents contacted for this article refused to speak to this newspaper on the
Chitra Panjabi, president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said she comes from a South Asian immigrant background and her family faced many of the same issues surrounding sexuality education when she was school-aged.
“My parents didn’t talk to me about sex,” she said. “I understand where some of these parents are coming from because I come from a culture that says sex isn’t something that’s discussed, and that you will know what you need to know on your wedding night.”
But she said even though some parents may be uncomfortable with the idea, students still need to be educated.
“I think the challenge is that young people are still curious and they have peers that may talk to them about these issues,” she said. “Some of them end up being sexually active and we want to provide information to them, even if their parents may not be supportive; we need to provide the information.”
She said studies have shown that comprehensive sexuality education actually delays sexual activity.
“It’s not that we’re trying to advocate or encourage young people to have sex, we are just giving them tools to stay healthy and informed,” she said. “I know (parents) want the best for their children but what I believe is best for their children and young people is giving them the education and information they need about how to keep themselves safe and healthy if they want to engage in this.”
Maribel Martínez, director of the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs, acknowledged parents’ reservations about parts of the curriculum that address sexual orientation and gender identity and contains scenarios pertaining to same-sex couples. But, she said, LGBTQ youth need to learn in settings that are inclusive of their experiences and give them the information necessary to stay safe and healthy. The alternative can lead to public health issues, she said.
“Far too many LGBTQ youth are sitting in classrooms where their teachers and textbooks fail to appropriately address their identities, behaviors and experiences,” Martínez said. “This is especially damaging in sex education.”
In Palo Alto, where the Health Connected curriculum is already being taught, it was about ensuring students would receive consistent information through high school, according to district spokesman Jorge Quintana.
“Selecting Health Connected to provide elementary and middle school sexual health information allows for K-12 alignment in the district and continuity for our students and families,” said Quintana.
Health Connected educators this past year have taught the Puberty Talk to Palo Alto fifth-graders and Teen Talk to seventh-graders.
This was done, according to Quintana, following a vetting process by school principals and chief academic officers with input from parents at interactive education sessions, information nights and parent skill building workshops.
Even so, there was an outcry last month among some parents of middle school students who were displeased to learn the new sex-ed program was already being taught. Citing concerns that the program was inappropriate for their children, they submitted a petition (change.org) to the district with 1,318 signatures. The consensus was that the material didn’t align with their family or cultural values, and people turned out in droves at a school board meeting to protest not only the program but also the way they’d learned about it.
They asked the board for a re-do, this time with more involvement from parents. District superintendent Max McGee has tried to allay their concerns by saying his staff would work on improving the curriculum over the summer, and maybe even seek alternative programs.
Like other school districts, Palo Alto also is giving parents the option to opt out their children from parts or the entire program.
Still, many parents say they don’t see that as a viable solution for their families. Karlin-Resnick said she understands.
“The way to sort of match public health best practice with a recognition that there is a very diverse understanding of sexuality is to provide that opt-out option, (but) I also understand from parents, they don’t want to put their kids into a situation where their kids might feel like they’re being left out,” she said. “So I understand the hesitancy against that.”
Palo Alto resident Sara Armstrong, who has two kids in the district, said she considers the curriculum to be “medically accurate, unbiased and inclusive” and strongly disagrees with parents who oppose it.
“It’s the reality, and as parents, we don’t want to know…but we need to understand the context these kids are growing up in so we can teach them about the consequences and risks,” she said. “I think it’s appropriate for a seventh-grader to be talking about these things.”
The Cambrian School District in San Jose also is facing backlash from parents over its plan to implement Puberty Talk and Teen Talk in fifth- and seventh-grade classes respectively. District spokeswoman Danielle Smith said parents were informed about Teen Talk on March 29 and invited to an information night on April 13.
“There are some people that feel we went kind of fast, but it’s the same process for other curriculum, like math,” she said.
A group calling itself Concerned Cambrian Parents argued there’s a big difference between math and sex, so notification should have been handled differently. They’ve enlisted assistance from the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal defense organization that specializes in defending religious freedom, parental rights and other civil liberties, according to its website.
Campbell resident Keivan Tehrani is a member of Concerned Cambrian Parents and father of three. He questioned the district’s approach and the appropriateness of the Health Connected curriculum for his children.
“The premise is that all of them are having sex so let’s talk about it and that’s just not true,” he said. “The reality is that this is not what all the kids are going through. A lot of the illustrations they’e using are of high school kids (or) high school scenarios. It’s sad that this is being forced on this age group.”
Michelle Garcia, another district parent, said she never received a notice informing parents about the first meeting. After skimming through the curriculum, she said she was “shocked” by the content, particularly some of the graphics and scenarios, such as one describing a couple who sends each other explicit photos via text. Teaching the curriculum in a co-ed setting is also “a deal breaker” for her and her husband, she said. While opting out is not the best option, they are considering taking that route if the curriculum isn’t modified.
“Some of it is just too advanced for an 11-year-old and he’s not a mature 11-year-old,” she said. “He’s just an 11-year-old kid who likes his video games, so we have a hard time trying to walk that line of trying to maintain some of the innocence, because it’s going to be gone soon, but still educate him on what he needs to know.”
A number of Cambrian parents showed up at meetings held by the district’s board of education on April 20 and May 4 to speak out against the proposed curriculum. At the second meeting, some of the speakers included students and teachers who supported the proposed curriculum.
“In the prime years of our development, right around middle school, we as students deserve to be armed with knowledge about our bodies,” Carly Whitaker, an eighth-grade student at Ida Price Middle School, told the school board. “If so many kids aren’t provided with information about their bodies, sex, STDs, LGBTQ and more, how are we supposed to function, protect ourselves and accept others in today’s society?”
She added—to the amusement of the adults in the room, “I was once told by a friend that babies come from kissing at nighttime when it’s raining.”
The district offered a feedback survey on its website, and of the 157 parents who responded, 58 percent said they supported the curriculum in full or in part, according to Smith.
The district doesn’t currently offer a standard sex-ed curriculum, Smith said, and the previous one needs a major update because it doesn’t address abuse, sex trafficking, healthy and unhealthy relationships, HIV prevention, different sexual orientations and gender identity.
The decision to go with Health Connected was a “shoe-in,” said Smith. It is a local organization whose curriculum complies with the new law and offers curriculum for both fifth and seventh grades as well as comprehensive training for Cambrian staff, she said. Since the Campbell Union High School District—where most Cambrian students go on to high school—uses the same curriculum, it would also ensure continuity in lessons.
While the school board has yet to vote on the new curriculum, it’s already paid Health Connected $7,000 for materials and staff training, Smith said. A vote was scheduled for Tuesday, and if approved a pilot version of the curriculum may be taught at the end of the month, she said.
Things are quieter, relatively speaking, in other area districts.
The Campbell Union School District discussed implementation of the Health Connected curriculum for seventh-grade students on April 20 and May 4, when the board unanimously approved its launch for this month.
A letter was sent in both English and Spanish informing parents about the district’s plan and the opt-out option and invited them to review the material at the district and school sites.
At a district-hosted preview of the curriculum on May 4, Marci Nishijima, a parent of a seventh-grade student at Campbell Middle School, was the only parent to show up to ask questions about the course.
“I wanted to see the curriculum because I was hearing rumors that inappropriate topics were being taught to our young children,” she said. But the district presentation helped quell her doubts.
“I’m actually glad they teach all of this,” she said. “I’ll admit I’m not one to have these kinds of conversations, not a lot of parents are. I think it’s great they teach this in seventh grade and talk about healthy relationships.”
Superintendent Eric Andrew said his district has received only a few queries about the curriculum and only one parent has chosen to opt out. Teachers who were tasked with selecting a new sex-ed program overwhelmingly agreed the Teen Talk curriculum was the best option, Andrew said.
“It ensures that the latest information on student socio-emotional development is involved, from sexually transmitted infections to gender orientation,” he said. “But really, it’s more of an updated curriculum that reflects the latest information on student health development.”
The Sunnyvale School District started using Health Connected for its fifth-graders last year and has been using Planned Parenthood for its eighth-grade students. According to Reid Myers, a member of the district’s board of education, a task force was formed a few years ago comprised of teachers, nurses and parents to update the curriculum, which she said contained outdated materials. The district is considering Health Connected for its middle schools but waiting to see what happens in neighboring communities, she said.
So far, there has been little pushback from parents to the new curriculum, she said.
“We haven’t had issues,” she said. “We had parents come look at it in the preview night and at the district office, but really we haven’t had a big wave of concern and I think part of it is our community is pretty supportive and pretty transparent in everything we do.”
Mirell Kazos is a teacher at Bishop Elementary School who recently wrapped up teaching sex ed to her fifth-grade students. Of the 95 students she taught, she said seven chose to opt out. She thinks Health Connected is “brilliant” and “unbelievably valuable” and wishes her own daughters had learned the curriculum.
“I think there is a sense of initial awkwardness, but I really think the students took in the information despite if there was an awkwardness or not and appreciate the fact that they knew now what they didn’t know before or may have thought incorrectly before and now they know the correct version,” she said. “I had many students come up to me and say, ‘wow, that was really interesting, thank you for letting us know that.’ ”
Nancy Messner, a science teacher at Sunnyvale Middle School who’s in her 18th year in the district, said she remembers the district always teaching comprehensive sex-ed.
“As far as the new information, I think it helps people with understanding more about respect in middle school,” she said. “We let the kids know that you don’t have to put a label on yourselves; if you want to identify as certain things, that’s fine, but at the same time, everybody should be respectful because we all have different values and different backgrounds.”
The San Jose Unified School District has already implemented a curriculum offered by Planned Parenthood in the current school year. The program, which complies with the new law, was approved by the board in October following a series of community meetings in September, according to district spokesman Peter Allen.
“It’s important for parents in the community to have a sense of ownership in these issues and it creates a better relationship,” Allen said.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Union School District is reviewing its existing curriculum to determine what changes may be needed, according to Andrew Schwab, the associate superintendent of learning and innovation. It has contracted MarshMedia to teach a human growth and development course in elementary school and sexual health education in middle school. The goal is to implement a new curriculum the following school year.
At the Saratoga Union School District, a task force comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, board members and health professionals has partnered with Bay Area Communities for Health Education to study different curricula and find the best one, according to district superintendent Nancy Johnson. Currently, teachers in the district teach an outdated human growth and development curriculum to fifth- and seventh-graders.
The district hopes to have a new curriculum in place by spring of next year.
It has been holding a number of meetings for parents. The first, on April 18, provided an overview of the new state mandate and laid out a plan for how the district would proceed. On May 2, it held a workshop instructing parents on how to have an ongoing dialogue with their children about sexuality and puberty.
Feedback from parents has been positive, said Johnson. “We received notes of gratitude for our district’s heads-up and offer of assistance to help parents plan their own information-sharing strategies with their children.”
One mother of two kids who attended the workshop said she found it useful. Priya, who declined to give her last name, said it’s not so much about the content as about how the message is delivered.
“The bottom line is: don’t make it a big deal, make it a little more intellectual for them, put it in a scientific fashion,” she said. “That’s how I would approach it.”
Bhavana Narayanan, a parent of two young boys in the district, attended the workshop because she’d heard rumblings on Nextdoor about the curriculum changes in Cupertino and wanted to be “in the loop” in her own district.
“I got the sense that the (Saratoga) school district definitely sees the parents as partners in this curriculum and just generally talking to kids about health and bodies and all that,” she said. “What I got was how we can participate and what parents’ role could be versus the school’s role.”
But while she supports the curriculum changes, Narayanan said she still has questions, such as why boys as young as 12 need to learn how to wear a condom when the average age of boys starting to have intercourse is 17.
Heidi Winig, director of Bay Area Communities for Health Education and the one who led the May 2 workshop, suggested there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to broach the subject of sex with children.
“We believe that we are partners with parents,” she said. “We teach the facts—medically accurate facts, and you as parents teach the values so that together we have a partnership to have a conversation our children need.”
The question-and-answer segment contained such queries as: “How can I talk to my child about the difference between good versus bad touch?” But Winig also asked the parents to visualize what it was like when they were teenagers and to consider where children get their information about relationships and sex.
Jennifer Rogers, a health educator and communications manager for Health Connected, said she keeps that in mind when she’s teaching the curriculum.
“They’re (students) seeing things certainly from social media, television, the computer and from older siblings and parents and they’re not quite privy to the conversations, but they’re just in earshot of them so they have all these puzzle pieces that are not connected or are partially connected,” she said.
While many districts in the region are tweaking their sex-ed curricula, districts such as the Loma Prieta Joint Union School District in Los Gatos realize they need to start from the ground up.
“We are really, really small and we have not had a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum,” said Corey Kidwell, who holds the dual role of superintendent and principal. “We are in the process of looking at it and talking about it. We tend to try and let the bigs go first to see what works.”
The district is working with a consultant to figure out what to add to its bare-bones curriculum, which covers only AIDS and HIV prevention education in middle school, she said.
“We’re late to the game, but we’ll get there,” she said, adding that input from parents and the community will be sought. “We’ll look to our neighboring districts to see what’s working for them and what isn’t working for them to be able to take guidance from (their) challenges and successes.”
The Lakeside Joint School District in Los Gatos, which serves about 90 students, currently does not offer a sex-ed curriculum and interim superintendent Elizabeth Bozzo could not comment on the district’s future plans. The Los Gatos Union, Luther Burbank and Moreland school districts did not respond to requests from this newspaper for information on their curriculum implementation plans.
The Teen Talk curriculum is also available for viewing at the Health Connected office at 480 James Ave. in Redwood City.