The notice was emailed to parents of Pacific Grove Middle School students on March 27: In five days, outside educators from Planned Parenthood would be on campus, teaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders about sex.
The notice did not sit well with a mother of two middle school students in Pacific Grove, a charming seaside town on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula, north of tony Carmel.
“I really don’t want Planned Parenthood involved in our school,” said the mother, a former home-schooler who described herself as a Christian who opposes abortion. She did not want to be named because, as she put it, “I’m just a normal mom with a normal family trying to raise my kids as I see fit. I don’t want to get involved in any drama.”
She contacted the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based conservative Christian legal group that fights against what it considers infringements on parents’ religious rights. (Its opponents describe it as anti-gay.)
The institute’s attorney Matthew McReynolds promptly fired off a letter to Pacific Grove Middle School Principal Sean Roach, demanding the sex-ed course be canceled or postponed.
The school, alleged McReynolds, had violated the California Education Code by not giving parents adequate advance notice of the class, time to review the curriculum and the opportunity to opt out.
The letter then went a step further, attacking Planned Parenthood.
“It need hardly be explained that Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, is one of the most controversial organizations in America,” McReynolds wrote. “Depending on one’s viewpoint, Planned Parenthood is either the embodiment of evil or the champion of reproductive rights.”
Personally, I love Planned Parenthood. I am grateful every day for its unwavering commitment to public health, education and, yes, abortion services.
Still, I don’t think anyone disagrees that parents should be informed about their children’s education, particularly on sensitive topics like sex.
As soon as Principal Roach received the Pacific Justice Institute letter, he told me, he realized that the school had indeed erred by failing to give parents adequate advance notice.
“It was a clerical error,” he said. He canceled last week’s program.
The Pacific Justice Institute declared a win.
“Praise God!” wrote Brad Dacus, the institute’s founder and president. “When it seems like the evil surrounding us is overwhelming, we can still obtain victories.”
It’s easy to forget that the debates over sex education in public schools never stop.
In 2016, the issue heated up after California updated its law on sex education, making our state one of the most progressive in the country.
The law requires schools to teach about the emotional aspects of sex, the possibility that people may have more than one sexual partner, same-sex relationships and different gender identities.
The law also requires students be given information about sexual assault and harassment, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence and sex trafficking. (My only question: What took us so long?)
Last year in the Bay Area, the Fremont Board of Education voted to scrap sex ed for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders after parents complained at raucous meetings that the new education code went too far beyond the mechanics of sexual development and pregnancy. (After another outcry, the board restored the curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders.)
In Orange County, where some parents mistakenly believed that sex toys are part of the curriculum, at least two school districts have refused to implement the law.
“I have seen parents more fired up about this issue in the last year than I have had in the previous 15 years,” McReynolds said. “I think it’s honestly because of the changing nature of sex education, which has gone in a direction that parents find disconcerting.
“Parents used to assume it was the birds and the bees and how bodies work. And now it seems like something that’s pushing kids a certain direction, pushing certain viewpoints, especially with the fusion of gender ideology, gender expression and gender identity.”
This is a prime reason so many conservative groups object to the new curriculum.
Lauren Walters, a regional program manager for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, oversees the sex-ed classes at Pacific Grove. She does not get defensive when challenged. “I think it’s natural for parents to be concerned about what their kids are learning in school,” she said.
Any school can ask her to give parents a preview of what their children will be taught, although Pacific Grove did not. “Very few schools take us up on it,” she said, “and when they do, we find that not many parents come out.”
I shared with her one concern of the middle school mom in Pacific Grove, who told me she objected to having Planned Parenthood on campus because, as the mom put it, “they will tell your children they are allowed to leave school without your permission to get an abortion.”
That sounded a little like right-wing paranoia to me. Except she’s partially right: While California teenagers need permission to leave campus, they do not need their parents’ approval for birth control, abortions or prenatal care. (They don’t need permission to get sexually transmitted diseases or pregnant, either, both of which are far more likely to happen in the absence of sex ed.)
“We give comprehensive, medically accurate information, and part of that is pregnancy options,” Walters told me. “If someone has a positive test, there are three options: carrying on with pregnancy, adoption or abortion.”
This week, Pacific Grove Middle School was closed for spring vacation.
The campus was empty, except for a trio of deer munching grasses under the cypress and eucalyptus trees.
From the school’s front lawn, I could see ocean, whipped by a strong breeze into a froth of whitecaps. What a beautiful place to grow up.
I wouldn’t say this issue has exactly roiled Pacific Grove, a placid community that is home to the historic Asilomar Conference Grounds and a monarch butterfly preserve.
In fact, Principal Roach seemed surprised to have been drawn into the culture wars at all.
“This is the first pushback I’ve encountered,” he said.
Anyway, the kerfuffle is not the big victory touted by the Pacific Justice Institute in its fundraising appeal.
Before spring break, Pacific Grove Middle School parents received another email from Roach: The Planned Parenthood comprehensive sex-education curriculum has been rescheduled for the last week of April.
Parents who don’t want their kids to participate can do what they’ve always done: opt out.