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Westminster District Braces for HIV/Sex Education Fight

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Times Staff Writer

Westminster School District trustees may be headed for another clash with state education officials over a new sex education and AIDS awareness law.

At a meeting Thursday, the board will discuss the law that streamlines sex education and AIDS prevention education in California schools. Trustee Judy Ahrens -- part of the three-member board majority that recently took a controversial stand against a state anti-discrimination law -- said she had raised the issue to be sure that the district would not abandon its own policy that requires parents to register their children for the classes, versus the district automatically placing students.

The California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act, which took effect in January, was intended to bring various sex and AIDS education laws under one title.

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The law requires districts to inform parents of the content of classes and allows parents to remove their children if they wish to do so.

But since 1999, Westminster has kept students out of both types of classes unless parents opted to include their children.

The law’s author, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said the law makes clear that such an “opt-in” policy violates the law. Students are supposed to attend the classes, she said, unless parents request they be removed.

“It was the intent of the law to have all districts adopt an ‘opt-out’ policy,” Kuehl said Tuesday. “There is no authority in the statute to permit this.”

The chief lawyer for the California Department of Education said her staff was trying to understand the scope of the law and whether a policy such as Westminster’s was acceptable.

“We have been struggling to understand all the changes made by SB 71 with regards to parental consent,” said Marsha Bedwall, the lawyer.

If state education officials eventually decide Westminster’s policy conflicts with the law, it could set up a confrontation similar to the one over the anti-discrimination law meant to protect transsexuals and others who do not conform to traditional gender roles.

Even as state Supt. for Public Education Jack O'Connell threatened to withhold millions of dollars in funding, the board majority -- Ahrens, Helena Rutkowski and Blossie Marquez-Woodcock -- repeatedly refused to adopt the law word-for-word, saying it immorally allowed students and teachers to define their own gender.

The faceoff was defused last month when O'Connell ruled that the district had technically complied with the law.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Rutkowski will request that James Reed be replaced as the board president. She has accused Reed of being in “dereliction of duty,” according to the district’s meeting agenda.

The move comes after a series of raucous meetings in recent months at which the board discussed the discrimination law.

“[Reed] has not been a voice for the entire board; he’s been opinionated, and I think it’s great that he’ll be replaced,” said Marquez-Woodcock.


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