Analysis Sexual Health

State-Level Fights for Comprehensive Sex Ed Reveal Legal Strategies Must Be Rooted in Grassroots Advocacy

Martha Kempner

Parents in California have joined two organizations in suing the Clovis Unified School District over its sex-ed program. The majority of these controversies are over kids getting too much information. But this lawsuit argues that kids are not getting enough. Are lawsuits a good strategy for sex-ed advocacy?

As the school year began, parents in California’s Central Valley joined the California District of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network in suing the Clovis Unified School District. The suit involves the distgrict’s sexuality-education program. The majority of these controversies over the last 15 years have involved outrage over kids getting too much information. This lawsuit argues that kids are not getting enough.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Northern California, is based on a 2003 state law, stipulating that if a district chooses to teach sexuality education, it must be age-appropriate and medically accurate. Moreover, beginning in seventh grade, sexuality instruction must include information on abstinence “while also providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.”

Despite this law, the Clovis district takes a strict abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, suggesting that all people, including adults, should avoid sexual activity outside marriage. According to the ACLU, “Additional materials compare a woman who is not a virgin to a dirty shoe and suggest that men are unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused.” My favorite, however, has to be the health textbook that tells students that to prevent STDs and unintended pregnancies, they just have to “practice abstinence,” “respect yourself,” and “get plenty of rest.” Ironically, I seem to remember that “get plenty of rest” was advice I got when I wanted to get pregnant.

In fact, the California Department of Education has already noted that this textbook, Lifetime Health, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, did not meet the legal requirements of the 2003 law. You may recognize Lifetime Health from the recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which found that ten districts in that state were using a version of that text. It told students, among other things:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

  • “When you practice abstinence, you will not be guilty of having sex with an unwilling partner. You will not be accused of date rape.”
  • “Character is a person’s use of self-control to act on responsible values. When you have good character, you uphold family values and practice abstinence from sex.”

The textbook was also the subject of a 2004 controversy in Texas. In that instance, the  publisher had worked with Joe McIlhaney to scrub the book of anything that might not be considered abstinence information in order to get the important—and profitable—stamp of approval from the state board of education. McIlhaney is a nationally recognized proponent of abstinence-only education and head of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. In fact, one advocate I spoke to in Texas said that if Clovis schools use this Texas-approved version of the book, it would essentially mean that the state board of education “got them sued.”

Regardless of what version of the book the schools are using, the information in it does not educate young people or help them protect themselves when they become sexually active. As one of the parents involved in the suit told the LA Times:

“I want there to be medically accurate, scientifically based education for all youth in Clovis Unified. If we don’t give them the information, they won’t be able to make good, healthy decisions.”  

Another mother involved in the suit put it this way:

“Our kids need complete, accurate information to help them protect themselves against STDs and unintended pregnancy. That’s information they’ll need at whatever point in their life they become sexually active.”

The school district is reviewing the lawsuit and has more time to reply. A spokeswoman, however, has defended the program, saying that the district fully complies with state education law that promotes abstinence as “the only 100% surefire way to prevent pregnancy” and STDs. In a statement the spokeswoman said, “It appears from an initial review that the concern raised in this lawsuit stems from a question of differing interpretations of the depth and breadth of a school district’s obligation to cover detailed sexual content in its family life-sex education materials.” According to the LA Times, however, she declined to comment on the allegation that the district omitted information about condoms and contraception.

While we wait to see how the lawsuit plays out, I asked a few experts if they thought that suing a school district for lack of information or for providing inaccurate information was a good strategy for parents and advocates of comprehensive sexuality education. The response was a combination of enthusiasm and cautious optimism.

Sarah Audelo, senior manager of domestic policy at Advocates for Youth, said:

“It’s wonderful that they are moving forward with the lawsuit because Clovis is not following the law and the education teens in that district are getting is harmful.”  

Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, called the lawsuit brilliant:

“We always say that parents play such a vital role in the sex education of their children and this is a great example of parents who take it seriously enough to say our children deserve better and this isn’t enough.”  

Schroeder went on to say that actions like this do two important things: “They remind people of the preponderance of support for comprehensive sex education among parents” and they “empower parents.” 

Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director at the ACLU of Northern California, who has been working with the parents in Clovis for a number of years, says: 

“It’s so valuable to have engaged parents advocating for comprehensive sex education in their children’s schools. They can educate other community members about why this is an important issue, they have leverage with the school district, and, after winning positive change, they will be around to make sure it’s being implemented.”  

Burlingame points out, however, that a lawsuit was not the first step Clovis took. Though litigation is a useful tool, it has to go hand in hand with advocacy in the community. Community members in the Clovis district have been working with the school board and administrators for a number of years to improve sexuality education and ensure that the district is complying with the law. They had some success when the district agreed to change the middle-school curriculum, a locally-written program that included inaccuracies and gender biases. But they hit a wall when the district refused to budge on the high-school program. This is why parents wanted to move forward with the lawsuit. 

Burlingame says that such lawsuits are possible only in states that have a strong law like California’s. But they are still a last resort. She notes that a number of communities were able to educate school administrators about the law and change minds without even the threat of a lawsuit. In Fremont, for example, parents got a national fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum out of the school. They replaced it with FLASH—a very comprehensive program written by the Seattle and King County Department of Health. Burlingame calls Fremont a testament to the “value of community organizing.” The committed and knowledgeable parents who worked on this issue continue to stay involved and have been able to fight off a few attempts to reinstate the strict abstinence-only program.

Elizabeth Schroeder agrees that committed parents are key. Her state of New Jersey has a strong mandate for sexuality education, but she points out that “once the classroom door is shut, if the teacher is doing something that doesn’t fulfill the mandate, oh well. There is no incentive to do it, and there’s no consequence for not doing it.” Watchful parents, however, can provide that incentive and that consequence. 

It does not surprise me that one of the parents involved in the advocacy efforts in Clovis is a health educator, and another is a nurse. When you work in the trenches with adolescents every day, you realize just how important access to information is. I have no doubt that the children of these parents are well informed. But I praise the parents for their commitment to the other kids in the community. As the mother of a first grader, I am getting my sea-legs when it comes to being part of the public-school system. I get the feeling that I’m going to become one of those watchful parents awfully soon.

News Abortion

Pro-Choice Congress Members Denounce ‘Extreme’ Anti-Choice Bill

Adele M. Stan

"It’s just a fake front issue to talk about abortion," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said of HR 7, the anti-choice bill passed just hours before Tuesday's State of the Union address. "What they’re really talking about is contraception, family planning, the judgment of women."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), joined by pro-choice members of Congress and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), gathered at the Capitol Visitor Center on Wednesday to denounce HR 7, the anti-choice bill passed by House Republicans on Tuesday, just hours before President Barack Obama arrived at the Capitol to deliver his annual State of the Union message. The president made no mention of the bill, or of the legislative assault on women’s rights, during his hour-long speech, instead focusing on the pay disparity between men and women, which he called “an embarrassment.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus and ranking member on the House Committee on Rules, opened the press conference by citing a recent poll that shows 70 percent of Americans say they don’t want to see Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, overturned. “I have been in this fight for 40 years; imagine that,” Slaughter said. She also noted that she believes access to abortion is not an issue that belongs before any legislature, especially not to be decided, she said, “by men in blue suits and red ties.”

As did most of the speakers who followed her, Slaughter noted what she said was the false premise on which the bill was predicated: that taxpayer dollars are being used to pay for abortions, a prohibition currently enforced, and enforced for decades, under the Hyde Amendment and related amendments. Given the legislation’s imminent death in the Senate, Slaughter said, Tuesday’s vote was about as purposeful as “voting 49 times to kill [the Affordable Care Act]” after it had passed into law.

“It’s just a fake front issue to talk about abortion,” Pelosi added. “What they’re really talking about is contraception, family planning, the judgment of women.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“So this is the heart of it: The president talked about the future, and they want to take us back,” she continued. “We’re not going there.”

Boxer next took the podium, invited as the author of the compromise language included in the Affordable Care Act that made explicit in the health-care reform law that federal money would not be used for the purchase of abortion coverage, language that was shown to attendees in a poster-sized copy of that page of the law that was placed next to the podium on an easel. HR 7, Boxer said, is an “extreme bill” with a “grossly dishonest title”: the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.”

“I find it reprehensible that House Republicans are now trying to create a phony controversy,” Boxer said. “It’s very clear what their bill is about: eliminating coverage for abortion in the health-care exchanges, not even allowing to use their own personal funds to pay for that coverage, which is a legal procedure.”

“It’s been quite a week for the Republicans, who claim that the Republican Party is not waging a ‘war on women,'” Boxer said. She went on to enumerate the “several new fronts” she said had been opened over the course of the week leading up to the State of the Union speech, including former GOP presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comments to the effect that American women wouldn’t need a birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act if they could only control their libidos, and the contention of Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) that wives should “voluntarily submit” to their husbands. “Now, as someone who’s been married 52 years … I can say that submission on either side is not part of a successful [marriage],” Boxer said, noting that Tuesday was her wedding anniversary.

“So, I have a question for the Republicans,” said Boxer. “What century are you living in?”

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, opened her speech noting a long list of groups that had collaborated to oppose HR 7, in order to demonstrate, she said, that “this is a rising movement.”

Hogue was defiant when talking about the bill, and the other “fronts” cited by Boxer.

“I want them to put their cards on the table,” Hogue said. “I want former Gov. Huckabee to keep talking. I want them to pass the kind of resolutions that they pass at the RNC, and demand that their candidates make this issue front and center. You know why? Because when they try and fight this battle out in the open, they lose it. The American people are not on their side. It’s when they hide it that we’ve got to be worried.”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), who was seated in a 2009 special election, expressed incredulity at the opposition to science he found among the Republicans, noting that one of the things that most excited him when he first arrived in the Capitol was the access he was assured of, by his colleague Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), “to the world’s greatest minds.” Nobel laureates, he was told, would be available to advise him.

When Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), took the podium, she listed the things she said Republicans oppose, abortion and contraception among them. “What are they for?” she asked, rhetorically.

“Submission,” Slaughter quipped.

After the press conference, Rewire caught up with Schakowsky, asking her if she was disappointed that President Barack Obama failed to mention the Republicans’ passage of the anti-choice bill on Tuesday, or the broader GOP assault on women’s health care, especially heading into the 2014 midterm election campaign.

“No,” Schakowsky replied, noting that one of the biggest applause lines of the president’s speech was this: “When women succeed, America succeeds.”

“I think the message was very clear,” she continued. “I think it was very inspiring for women. We’re the party of women; that was the message last night.”

Roundups Sexual Health

Sexual Health Roundup: HIV-Prevention Drug Wins FDA Panel Approval, Parents Talk About Internet Pornography

Martha Kempner

A New York Times article looks at how parents do (and should) react when their children inevitably see Internet pornography, an FDA advisory panel recommends approving a drug for HIV-prevention, and Massachusetts cuts over $1 million from its HIV-prevention and testing program in county jails. 

How Some Parents Are Handling Internet Pornography

An article in the New York Times gives parents some advice on how to react when their children see internet pornography. As the article notes, it’s not just computers that have access to the Internet — it’s smart phones, i-Pads, i-Pods, gaming systems, and e-readers.  As such, it is pretty much inevitable that children will see pornographic images whether by accident or on purpose — even with the best filtering software. The article interviewed parents who took radically different approaches to this issue and talked to experts for their advice.

One mother of five children felt so strongly that it was her duty to ensure they didn’t see any explicit material that she took back the i-Pod Touches she had given each of them for Christmas when she realized that there was no way to disable or filter the internet on those devices. In fact, she petitioned Apple to put a warning on the boxes so other parents with her concerns would not unknowingly purchase them as she had. (According to the article there is now a new app specifically designed to filter content on mobile devices like the i-Pod Touch and the Kindle.)

In contrast, a father of a 14-year-old boy took a different approach when an i-tunes bill revealed that his son had bought an application called 1,001 breasts. Remembering how much he wanted to look at Playboy when he was that age, he was not shocked and did not get angry. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to discuss pornography with his son and then set up blocking software that allowed one site with naked women (which he described as not much more explicit than the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition) to get through. 

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Of course, there is also the issue of much younger kids accidentally clicking on a link that brings up pornographic material. One mother interviewed, after realizing what her six-year-old had seen, told her daughter simply that there are some videos that are not appropriate and left it at that.

For an expert opinion, the article turned to Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer and Rewire contributor, who pointed out that the bigger issue is not necessarily what children see but how parents react. “If we flip out, freak out or go crazy about it, we’re giving a very set message,” she said, one that may prevent children from feeling they can ask their parents questions without being judged or punished.”  Schroeder says it’s important to remain calm and let your child know, he or she can come to you to discuss what they’ve seen. She and other experts agree that it is also important to have the conversation before any internet incident precipitates it and to make it part of ongoing family conversations about sex and sexuality.

FDA Panel Approves New HIV-Prevention Drug; Some Advocates Worry

A few weeks ago, I noted in the Sexual Health Roundup that California was set to try Truvada, a drug previously given to HIV-positive individuals, as a method of prevention for those most at risk of sexual transmission of the virus. While many were excited about this new weapon for prevention, others feared that it would cut back on condom use and that it was too expensive to be worthwhile. This debate is now likely to heat up and go national.

Last week an FDA advisory panel recommended giving Truvada to healthy people who might be exposed to HIV through sexual activity. Studies have found that, when taken daily, this antiviral medicine greatly reduces an individual’s chance of become infected with HIV. The panel, therefore, recommended that the drug be, “prescribed for people at high risk of infection, like gay men who have multiple sex partners, especially those who do not always use condoms, and people in relationships with someone who is H.I.V.-positive.”  Other high-risk populations that might benefit from Truvada include young black men and sex workers.

Some experts believe that the availability of this preventive drug could reduce the number of new HIV infections by 50,000 per year. Still, there are questions about Truvada. Members of the FDA panel voiced concerns that people who become infected with HIV while taking the drug could develop a drug-resistant strain of the virus. Others also worried about the testing requirements. Individuals should be tested for HIV before starting Truvada as a preventive measure because if they are HIV-positive when they start, the virus may quickly become drug resistant. While testing is required before people start the drug, experts say this will be hard to enforce and worry that it could become a barrier to some people taking the drug at all.

The biggest fear, though, is that people who take the drug will stop using other prevention methods like condoms. And, that at the same time they will not adhere properly to the daily dose of the drug leaving them more at risk of HIV infection than they were before. Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, said:

Among our own patients who are HIV-positive, we have difficulty getting them to adhere, let alone people who don’t have the disease. Counting on adherence is not going to work.

In fact, among those who participated in the trials of Truvada, only 10 percent took the drug every day. In another interview, Weinstein said: “You will definitely have a result that is far worse than what you had in any of the studies.” Other advocates and researchers disagreed; one compared Weinstein’s arguments to those that suggested airbags were dangerous because people would stop wearing seatbelts. 

Truvada is already approved by the FDA for use with HIV-positive patients so doctors are free to prescribe it “off-label” to those who they feel should use it as a prevention method.  Until the FDA approves it for preventative use, however, its manufacturer cannot advertise or label it as a prevention method. The panel approval is a step toward FDA approval of the new usage and will also likely mean that the $14,000 a year price tag will be covered by insurance. 

Massachusetts Cuts Funding for HIV Testing and Education in County Jails

Cuts in CDC funding have forced Massachusetts to reduce its state budget for HIV  prevention by $4.3 million and it looks like programs in county jails will be among the first to go. The state announced more than $1 million dollars of cuts to programs that educate inmates about HIV, test them for HIV, and monitor the health of those who are HIV-positive. These new cuts will mean eliminating jobs of HIV educators as well as ending visits to inmates by infectious disease doctors.  

In the 2011 budget year, 8,211 county inmates were tested statewide and 34 were  HIV-positive. Inmates are frequently at high risk before coming to jail because of unprotected sex and injection drug use, and the risk of unprotected sex within the jails themselves is also high. Jails also have a much higher rate of turnover than state prisons because their inmates serve no more than two years meaning they will be back home soon. Because of that high turnover, jails have often been seen as an important point of prevention and testing so that when inmates return to their communities they are aware of their status and can take preventive measures. 

The federal cuts which will be phased in over five years are part of the CDC’s efforts to move resources out of states like Massachusetts where HIV/AIDS rates are low and into state with increasing rates of infection like those in the South.  “In today’s challenging economic environment, it is more important than ever to ensure that every federal HIV prevention dollar has the greatest possible impact on the national HIV epidemic,’’ CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Ruth Horvath said in an e-mail to the Boston Globe.

The state was then forced to make a similar decision, cut funding where it would do the least damage. And some believe, based on the low rates of HIV revealed by testing in the jails, that officials made the right choice. One public health professional who works for a health center that also lost funding recently said: “They’re being left with a bunch of bad choices. The county jails in this particular case may not be the highest yield for the dollars that are spent. . . . I think it’s the least bad alternative.’’