Too little, too late.
To two Los Angeles school board members, those four words sum up the problem with sex education in Los Angeles city schools.
"I would like the whole discussion of sex education to come earlier and more matter-of-factly," said Jackie Goldberg, the Hollywood and Central City representative who, with colleague Roberta Weintraub, recently persuaded the board to establish a pilot high school health clinic that will offer birth control information and contraceptives.
"If we could be more frank and open about (sex), we could reduce the amount of teen-age pregnancies," Goldberg said. "And we could certainly reduce the amount of totally irresponsible teen-age sex which comes from it being so secretive, so taboo."
Although sex educators say it is difficult to draw a correlation between sex education and prevention of teen-age pregnancies, Goldberg and Weintraub say that giving youngsters more information could only be helpful. After spending the last year reviewing the district's sex education courses and comparing Los Angeles' offerings to the curriculum in other school districts across the nation, they have concluded that the way the district teaches about sex, babies and the hazards of promiscuity leaves much to be desired.
The same concern recently led them to propose the health clinic. The facility, which would provide students with parental consent access to birth control information and contraceptives, was approved by a 6-1 vote earlier this month, despite objections that it would encourage teen-agers to be sexually active. Many details, such as its location, have not been resolved, but the clinic's backers hope it will open next fall.
"We're so behind," said Weintraub, who represents the East San Fernando Valley. "Someone said to me that we're already 10 years too late with the clinic. In sex education, probably 20 years is more like it."
The board members' review of the curriculum has proceeded quietly thus far, although some of the hue and cry that has accompanied attempts to liberalize sex education in other districts over the years will presumably arise when the time approaches for formal action.
Any major changes in the curriculum that Goldberg and Weintraub may propose will require public discussion and consideration by the full board. They said they will raise the matter next year, with the goal of having some new course guidelines available by September.
According to Goldberg, other board members have expressed "a lot of interest" in re-examining the information that the district imparts to youngsters about human reproduction and sexuality. But there may not be consensus on how to teach those subjects.
For instance, David Armor, the West San Fernando Valley board member who cast the only vote against the pilot health clinic, said he also finds the district's sex education guidelines inadequate, although not for the same reasons that his colleagues have cited.
During the hearing on the school health clinic, Armor said he wanted the district to emphasize prevention of sexual activity in the same way that other school programs discourage the use of drugs and cigarettes.
"I sense from the curriculum that there is a reluctance to encourage a particular position," specifically abstention, he said. "Like abstention from smoking and drugs, I think that is the healthy response. We're not really teaching kids to say no or explaining the advantages of not becoming sexually active."
Goldberg, who taught sex education as a high school teacher, agrees that the schools have not provided youngsters with "a good strategy for resisting pressure." She and Weintraub favor giving teen-agers more information so that, in Weintraub's words, "kids can make intelligent decisions" about sex on their own.
Students in the Los Angeles school district receive sex education--or "family life education," as some school officials prefer to call it--primarily in the seventh and 10th grades. It is optional, and students need parental consent to take the class.
According to Ruth Rich, who oversees the district's health education curriculum, seventh-graders receive three weeks of lessons on sexual development. During that time, the students learn about physical and emotional changes during puberty, the basics of human reproduction, dating and responsible parenting. Also discussed are sexually transmitted diseases--and AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, will be included in that category beginning next fall.
The subject of contraception is not introduced until the 10th grade. Some teachers go into detail, discussing specific birth control methods, Rich said. But most teachers follow the course outline to the letter, explaining only the concept of contraception.
More attention is paid to relationships, the dynamics of family living and the role of heredity. Except for a brief discussion of child abuse and neglect as "a growing problem among parents who are in their teens and early 20s," according to the curriculum guide, social issues relating to teen-age parenting are not covered in depth. Nor does the course address alternatives to parenthood, such as adoption or abortion, even though they are issues that confront many teen-agers.
Both Goldberg and Weintraub believe that much of the information contained in the high school curriculum comes too late.
For instance, Goldberg said, the topic of contraception should be broached in junior high school, when many teen-age girls become pregnant. Girls under the age of 15 accounted for the largest increase in births in 1981--the latest year for which figures are available--according to the state Office of Family Planning.
In Weintraub's view, the fifth and sixth grades may not be too early to begin introducing some information about sexual feelings and the reproductive anatomy. "By that time, in many cases they've gotten started (having sex)," she said.
Some districts in Los Angeles County have adopted a more frank and thorough approach to sex education than the Los Angeles school district. In the Pomona Unified School District, for instance, sixth-graders learn about human reproduction, sexual exploitation, the meaning of mature love and the risks associated with teen-age pregnancy. Seventh-graders discuss contraception, while ninth-graders hear about the economic realities confronting teen-age parents.
Because too many teen-agers have romanticized notions about relations with the opposite sex, Goldberg said, she would like to see sex education include serious discussions about "what a good relationship should be like" and how to cope with the stresses that daily living places on relationships.
"We have a lot of things to discuss," Goldberg said. "It's not the details I'm worried about. It's changing the prevailing mood that says you can talk about all kinds of things but not about the essentials of human life. Schools have a role to play in demystifying sex. We can't solve everything. But we can do a great deal more."