Capistrano Schools’ Sex Education Plan Sparks Controversy

Times Staff Writer

The school board’s tiny meeting room was filled beyond capacity, as protesters outside carried signs and Bibles and sang hymns.

The crowd at the Capistrano Valley Unified School District meeting was ready for another round in a battle. On one side were administrators who proposed that touchy subjects taught in health classes--including contraception, venereal diseases and drugs--be integrated with conventional subjects such as English and social studies.

On the other side were parents who said the idea was anti-family and socialist and would encourage sex among teen-agers and homosexuality.

Beginning in elementary school, students would learn about the life cycles of plants and animals and that humans give birth just as animals do. By junior high school, the proposed topics would include dating, how to resist unwanted sexual advances and how to prevent pregnancy and venereal diseases. High school students would explore the options and obligations involved in marriage and family planning.


Sex roles and the changing place of women in society would be covered in social science classes, but the district dropped a controversial college-level teacher’s text, “I Never Knew I Had a Choice.”

Since February, a continuing parade of people has gone before the board to battle a plan that would expand and revise the “Family Life” curriculum, taught in the district’s junior and senior high schools for the last decade. At those meetings, speakers who criticized the program often got “amens” from the audience. Supporters of the lessons frequently were booed and heckled.

Opponents of the proposal say it is an attempt to subvert parental authority and to brainwash children into accepting values that conflict with their religious teachings. Along the way, the critics charge, the curriculum will also promote homosexuality and immorality.

“When you look at the scope of the program, what that amounts to is a power grab on the part of the state,” said Russell Neal, president of Citizens for Family Strength. “It is the state assuming the lion’s share of parental authority.”


The family life concept has been around awhile. The Anaheim Unified School District was the center of controversy in 1970, when it introduced the curriculum in its high schools, and several other school districts, including Los Alamitos, Garden Grove and Newport-Mesa, currently offer similar classes.

But heightened political activism among Christian fundamentalists and other religious groups in Orange County has galvanized opposition to the program in Capistrano Valley.

Citizens for Family Strength was founded by Anita Burkett, a member of the Mormon Church. Neal, a born-again Christian, was appointed president. Although the group keeps no rolls, Neal said it draws its membership from various religious groups and those simply attracted by its conservative ideology.

A newsletter published by Neal mixes praise for the Reagan Administration with its attacks on the family life curriculum. An “action calendar” keeps readers informed of anti-pornography rallies, anti-abortion seminars and city council meetings in San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Neal said that under normal circumstances, he probably would have little to do with Mormons, for example, because their theology differs widely from his own, but the situation forced the alliance. “When it comes to matters of basic right and wrong, there is not much disagreement between us,” he said.

At a meeting last week, the sixth hearing on the family life program, a dozen of the opponents arrived dressed in Revolutionary War garb and dragging a cannon to dramatize their fight. Inside, the board heard final recommendations from the school superintendent, which included a watered-down version of the curriculum.

The new version would allow fewer family life materials in fewer classes and would not include lessons about parenthood skills or family finances--two main targets of the criticism.

Calls Changes ‘Cosmetic’


Burkett, however, rejected the district’s concessions as “cosmetic.” The program, she said, still was too broad and in too many classes. Parents still wouldn’t be able to yank their children from classes using objectionable material.

Although she said she does not object to sex education, provided it is voluntary and restricted to high school students, Burkett said she does object to the presumption that the students are sexually active.

“When you plant new ideas in kids’ minds, they’re going out to experiment,” she said. For example, the proposed venereal disease prevention classes are more likely to spur experimentation than to prevent disease, she said.

Such allegations make some school officials bristle.

“The thing that absolutely fascinates me is contemplating the motive they think we have,” said school board member Jan Overton. “Why would we want to make kids homosexual? Why would we want to make them promiscuous? I wonder what they think must be going on in our heads.”

Supporters of the curriculum, including the president of the local PTA and many students, cite an increasing number of teen-age pregnancies. According to statistics kept by Planned Parenthood, about half of all American teen-agers are sexually active.

Statistics on Pregnancy

According to the Coalition Concerned with Adolescent Pregnancy, based in Santa Ana, a third of all 14-year-old girls today will have been pregnant at least once by the time they reach age 20, and about 38% of those pregnancies will be ended in abortion.


At a school board meeting in April, two of three high school students who addressed the board were in favor of the family life program.

“I feel there is a need for the family life curriculum,” said Aija Paegle, senior class vice president at Dana Hills High School. Teen-agers need all the information they can get because premarital sex and drug abuse have become commonplace among them, she argued.

Another student, Tammy Arguello, a senior at Capistrano Valley High, was booed when she upbraided parents for failing to teach their children about sex and drugs. “If we children don’t get the answers, we will continue to answer our questions through experimentation,” she said. “You relinquished your responsibility when you stopped teaching us.”

Jerome Thornsley, Capistrano Valley district superintendent, also denied that discussing sensitive issues would lead to drug use and sexual activity among teen-agers. “A student cannot avoid making choices. What we are trying to do is to have a drug-free group of moral kids.”

By law, parents who don’t want their children enrolled in sex education classes may remove them. Moreover, the district will provide training and texts to parents who don’t want their children learning about sex at school, he said. “We’ll provide them with the materials and classes so they can teach their children at home,” he said.

Capistrano’s program isn’t aimed at driving a wedge between parents and their children, Thornsley said. Rather, family life advises children to go to their parents first when they have problems, and it alerts them to the perils of contemporary teen-age life.

Task Force Study

Following its six-month study last year, the Family Life Task Force, made up of parents, teachers, administrators and two clergymen, presented the Capistrano Valley school board with 151 objectives. The topics included mental and emotional health, family relationships, diseases, drug and alcohol abuse and sex education.

The school board then asked another committee, composed of teachers and administrators, to choose the material. Much of it came from a program developed in Oregon that is used in about 400 school districts in 43 states.

Dr. Jim Terhune, who was in charge of developing Oregon’s program, said it is adaptable to the moral tone of the community. For example, one school district rewrote it to advocate abstinence from sex as the best form of birth control. “If a community wants to revise something, they can,” he said.

Cathy Barkett, a consultant to California’s state Department of Education, said the family life curriculum counterbalances the signals teen-agers get from movies and other role models.

“The pressure on students to be sexually active is increasing . . . in the books they read, the movies they see and the songs they sing. You can see how widespread the implications are for young people to be sexually active.”

One goal, she said, “is to teach students self-esteem, self-respect and how to say ‘no’ to unwanted sexual advances. Another is to teach them to make their own decisions and resist the peer pressure.”

Parents in Disagreement

But school districts shy away from such programs, she said, because, “It’s when you get into the discussion of controversial issues (such as sex and contraception) that you get the tremendous amount of disagreement among parents over what should be taught. I think that is doing the students a tremendous disservice because they need this information.”

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education, only about 4% of all high schools nationwide offer any type of family life curriculum. No statistics are kept on elementary schools offering the course.

Barkett said California doesn’t require districts to offer family life classes, but the department is surveying districts to find out how many do. It also is developing guidelines for them.

Those guidelines, expected to be offered in September, will recommend that family life materials be included in the classroom curricula in kindergarten through 12th grades.

Monday night’s public hearing was the last one on the subject of the family life program. The school board is scheduled to take a final vote on it May 20.

While members of the school board were reluctant to say how they will vote, most have said privately that they favor the plan. Fears that the family life curriculum will undermine students’ religious training or lead to promiscuity among youths are unfounded, they say.

“There isn’t going to be any wild stuff,” said board member Ted Kopp. “We’re not going to push a lot of hard-core stuff on the kids.”

The board probably will approve the version presented Monday, a pilot program that would begin this fall at eight elementary schools, two junior high schools and all four of the district’s senior high schools. George Dibs, the deputy superintendent, emphasized that the pilot program would be taught to “a limited number of students at a limited number of schools.” Afterwards, the program will be evaluated and revised, if necessary, before being taught districtwide.

Suspicious of Pilot Plan

Neal said he suspects that the pilot will be milder than the actual family life curriculum the district ultimately will establish, but by that time, it will be too late. “It won’t surface in the public domain again,” he said.

Although some members of Citizens for Family Strength have hinted they will take legal action to block adoption of the curriculum, Neal said there currently is no such plan.

“We still consider it to be in the political phase, and we’re not going to divert any mental effort,” he said.