Oceanside school officials have shelved a sex education program for the district’s youngest students after parents complained the material was too graphic, undermined their religious values and promoted “premature sexual interest, experimentation, and engagement.”
The district suspended the program for elementary school students earlier this summer, and plans to replace it with a new curriculum designed by teachers and school officials, in collaboration with parents.
The sex ed curriculum, titled “Rights, Respect and Responsibility,” was adopted by the Oceanside Unified School District board last year to comply with the California Healthy Youth Act, which took effect in 2016.
The state law requires schools to educate middle and high school students on how to prevent HIV, sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies, and to support healthy attitudes about “adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family.” It permits districts to introduce that material in early grades, but doesn’t mandate elementary school sex education.
Amid #MeToo allegations, sexual identity politics and ubiquitous social media, educators feel an urgency to address sexual health early on. But they acknowledge the complexity of discussing it in a manner suitable for younger kids.
“Our expectation is, and the law requires, that reproductive health education is going to be provided to students in an age-appropriate way,” said Joe Kocurek, a spokesman for Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who sponsored the new law. “Ultimately, the goal for the bill is to empower students to make the best and healthiest decisions for themselves.”
Oceanside hadn’t updated its sex-ed material since 1992, district spokeswoman Lisa Contreras said. A committee of teachers, administrators and board members evaluated eight different programs, and selected one produced by the Washington-based group Advocates for Youth. The organization is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provides materials for sex education, prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and material on birth control and abortion.
A separate Oceanside curriculum committee reviewed the choice before the board approved it in March 2017, Contreras said. However, parents weren’t involved in those decisions. And when they took a look at the lessons, some grew alarmed.
A kindergarten lesson taught students to protect their personal safety and privacy, but also asked them to name body parts, including reproductive organs. After parents objected, the district removed references to body parts including “urethra, vagina and anus,” said Oceanside Unified School District Board President Ann Corwin.
“Based on the feedback that we got, we took that specific stuff out,” she said.
Some parents wondered why the district was introducing sex education in primary grades, as the state doesn’t require it.
“Elementary was definitely our primary concern, especially since it was optional,” said Meghan Fontana, mother of a kindergarten student in the district. “Our question was, why are you forcing this?”
Although Oceanside is unusual in offering sex education for early grades, other districts have faced opposition to sex ed programs for older students. San Diego Unified School District, which also used curricula from Advocates for Youth for its middle and high school students, saw push-back from parents and community activists when it introduced the material last year.
Attorney Dean Broyles of the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy argued at school board meetings in 2017 that the new law is fair and balanced, but that the curriculum used in San Diego schools goes too far.
Broyles, best known for representing parents who sued the Encinitas Union School District for teaching yoga, said the curriculum doesn’t teach abstinence and leaves children vulnerable to discovering pornography on the internet.
Confronted with parent complaints, Oceanside officials ultimately decided not to present the curriculum for grades kindergarten through second during the last school year, Contreras said, but kept the lessons for third through sixth grades for the remainder of 2017-18. Critics objected that the material still wasn’t age-appropriate, and complained that it undermined the role of their families’ religious values.
For instance, they said a sixth-grade lesson entitled “Being a Sex Ed Sleuth,” offers tips on evaluating the credibility of online advice on sexual health. Offering an example of a student looking for information on the effectiveness of condoms, it cautions about relying on religious organizations for information.
“Does it talk only about abstinence and body parts, or does it include other information about sexual health as well?” a Power Point on the lesson asks. “Look for bias – Regardless of your own religion, a faith-based organization may have biases based on their own beliefs and teachings that may limit the extent of the sexuality-related information.”
Corwin acknowledged that passage didn’t sit well with her either, and said the district plans to revise it.
“As somebody who attends church on a regular basis, I don’t necessarily agree with that statement,” she said. “We’ll make sure it’s worded in a way that leaves everyone open to their faith and their teachings as much as possible.”
The petition against the program cited material that critics said was originally included in a seventh-grade lesson, which identified sexual activities such as bathing together and mutual masturbation as safe options to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Those references aren’t included in the current lessons posted by the district.
“The number of parents [objecting] grew and grew and grew,” Fontana said. “After some initial expression of age-inappropriate curriculum, they had taken some of it out. They pared it down a little bit.”
She also questioned elementary school lessons discussing the spectrum of sexual identity and orientation, arguing that those distinctions aren’t necessary for kids that age. For instance, a fifth-grade lesson on sexual orientation explains the terms “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “heterosexual” as part of a lesson on the attraction young people may have for friends of the same or different gender.
“I understand that we’re moving into a day and age that we accept different genders, but it explored too much of that too early,” Fontana said.
An eighth-grade lesson on sexual orientation described hypothetical dating scenarios of teenagers. It gave an example of a “ninth grade guy” who has been attracted to and made out only with girls, but who fell in love with another guy and is in a relationship with him. The couple also date other people, but are both dating only guys.
“How does he identify?” the lesson asks. “His identity: whatever he decides it is.”
Corwin said eighth grade is not too early to introduce those concepts. Some students in the district are already facing stress and isolation as they grapple with sexual identify, and the sex ed curriculum must address that, she said, adding that the district has not received complaints about its middle school curriculum.
“I don’t feel that that is too much, because some of these kids are already going through these issues,” she said. ‘I want that to address feeling supported, and feeling included.”
But opponents argue that presenting sex ed in early grades could leave kids more vulnerable to reckless behavior and even sexual exploitation.
“It grooms them for premature sexual interest, experimentation, and engagement, leading to the sexual objectification of our children,” local critics said of the program on the website Speak Up Oceanside.
Deborah Sullivan Brennan writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.