Commentary Sexual Health

Attacks on Sex Education Continue Nationwide

Kurt Conklin

The 2011–12 school year brought the typical array of controversies over sexuality education in public and private schools, along with exciting news of new sexuality-education standards.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) has just released its annual summary of sexuality education controversies, a sampler of clashing viewpoints from around the nation. The 2011–12 school year brought the typical array of controversies over sexuality education in public and private schools, along with exciting news of new sexuality-education standards. These could potentially change the terms of the debate around sex ed.

Students went back to school in 2011 under a cloud of political assaults on sexual rights, following lopsided 2010 Tea Party election victories. In statehouses across the nation, and in local school districts, opponents of comprehensive sexuality education were organizing to roll back earlier gains in policy, programming, and access to educational resources. Perhaps the best-known example occurred in Wisconsin. The ink had barely dried on the state’s Healthy Youth Act when a newly-conservative legislative majority acted to repeal the law and impose a return to failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the repeal measure into law along with a raft of other anti-rights provisions to restrict abortion and permit companies to discriminate in paying women less than men for equal work.

Advocates for sounder sexuality education found themselves in a standoff with a highly organized and well-financed movement that was determined to undo years of work aimed at benefiting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. In places as dissimilar as Utah, Washington State, and Tennessee, the opposition decried medically-accurate, inclusive sexuality education as the equivalent of bullying, alcohol abuse, rape, or “gateway drugs.”

Not all battles were waged at the statehouse level. Conservative opponents spent the 2011–12 school year attacking comprehensive sexuality education wherever they found opportunities—including local school districts in such ‘liberal’ bastions as New York State.

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The Shenendehowa Central Schools of Clifton Park were the scene of a controversy over the local Planned Parenthood affiliate’s role in sexuality education. Sexual health topics had been taught as a ten-day unit during eighth-grade health class, and again in either junior or senior year. After learning that Planned Parenthood Mohawk-Hudson had long provided guest presenters for Shenendehowa middle- and high- school classrooms, a group of local abstinence-only activists formed the Shen Parents’ Choice Coalition to demand an end to this arrangement. Bowing to the opposition, Schools’ Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson ordered the cancellation of all Planned Parenthood appearances in Shenendehowa schools.

He made the decision despite the fact that Planned Parenthood Mohawk-Hudson had a 20-year relationship with the school district, providing guest instructors and supplemental training for teen sexual-health advocates. The group’s work in 12 other upstate New York school districts, involving 46 public schools, had not generated any significant opposition until that point.  

As the controversy continued, more than 60 residents turned out for a Saturday-morning forum in which opposition leaders complained about the current program and presented their ideas for an “alternative” sexuality-education curriculum. Emily Sederstrand, for example, insisted that Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson materials and educational methods were causing emotional damage to students. “This is a type of sexual harassment going on,” she said. “It’s bullying.”  

District spokesperson Kelly DeFeciani said that, as a result of the controversy, the district would ask its 18-member Health Advisory Council to review the existing sexuality-education curriculum. The advisory council included school personnel as well as community representatives, such as Maureen Silfer, a vocal family-planning opponent who first raised an issue with the curriculum after her daughter brought it home.   

Despite the attacks from family-planning opponents, by June 2012 the needs of students had prevailed when the Health Advisory Council issued its recommendations. The council advised the school district to welcome Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson back into classrooms. It also recommended that the district begin general-health education earlier—in sixth grade rather than in eighth grade—and begin sexuality instruction in grade 10 rather than in grades 11 or 12. It also said sexual identity and orientation should be included as topics in the curriculum beginning with the current 2012–13 school year.

This was a clear defeat for the opposition. Silfer had already resigned from the Health Advisory Council by May 2012, complaining that the curriculum-review process was not objective. As for the final recommendations for 2012–2013, she groused, “It’s the same curriculum we have been fighting since last May.”

Another highlight from the past school year was the release, in January 2012, of the new National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K–12. SIECUS joined other leading health organizations to develop these first-ever national standards for sexuality education in schools. The standards were created to address a long-standing need for clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is developmentally and age-appropriate for students at each grade level.

But even these voluntary national standards generated controversy. Glenn Beck’s sulfurous conservative blog, The Blaze, accompanied its coverage with photos of very young children and a quote from Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association: “This should be a program about health, rather than agendas that have nothing to do with optimal sexual health decision-making … Controversial topics are best reserved for conversations between parent and child, not in the classroom.”

Opponents of medically-accurate, inclusive sexuality education may insist on banishing controversial topics from America’s classrooms. But we know that quality education on any subject includes the opportunity to discuss, debate, and think critically about current events as they affect us in the real world. Let’s stand with young people who seek the best education—including sexuality education—their schools can provide.

Culture & Conversation Politics

Latino Votes Count or ‘Why Would They Be Trying to Suppress Them?’: Dolores Huerta on What’s at Stake in 2016

Ally Boguhn

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta told Rewire. Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their vote might be suppressed in the first place.

Republican nominee Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in June 2015 with a speech notoriously claiming Mexican immigrants to the United States “are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists.”

Since then, both Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party at large have continued to rely upon anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric to drum up support. Take for example, this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—whose department came under fire earlier this year for racially profiling Latinos—was invited to take the stage to push Trump’s proposed 2,000-mile border wall. Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that Trump’s campaign had worked with the sheriff to finalize his speech.

This June, just a day shy of the anniversary of Trump’s entrance into the presidential race, People for the American Way and CASA in Action hosted an event highlighting what they deemed to be the presumptive Republican nominee’s “Year of Hate.”

Among the advocates speaking at the event was legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who worked alongside César Chávez in the farm workers’ movement. Speaking by phone the next day with Rewire, Huerta—who has endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—detailed the importance of Latinos getting involved in the 2016 election, and what she sees as being at stake for the community.

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The Trump campaign is “promoting a culture of violence,” Huerta told Rewire, adding that it “is not just limited to the rallies,” which have sometimes ended in violent incidents, “but when he is attacking Mexicans, and gays, and women, and making fun of disabled people.”

Huerta didn’t just see this kind of rhetoric as harmful to Latinos. When asked about its effect on the country at large, she suggested it affected not only those who already held racist beliefs, but also people living in the communities of color those people may then target. “For those people who are already racist, it sort of reinforces their racism,” she said. “I think people have their own frustrations in their lives and they take it out on immigrants, they take it out on women. And I think that it really endangers so many people of color.”

The inflammatory rhetoric toward people of color by presidential candidates has led to “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom,” according to an April report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The organization’s analysis of the impact of the 2016 presidential election on classrooms across the country found “an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” Though the SPLC did not name Trump in its questions, its survey of about 2,000 K-12 educators elicited up more than 1,000 comments about the Republican nominee, compared to less than 200 comments mentioning other presidential candidates still in the race at that time.

But the 2016 election presents an opportunity for those affected by that violent rhetoric to make their voices heard, said Huerta. “The Latino vote is going to be the decisive vote in terms of who is going to be elected the president of the United States,” she continued, later noting that “we’ve actually seen a resurgence right now of Latinos registering to vote and Latinos becoming citizens.”

However, a desire to vote may not always be enough. Latinos, along with other marginalized groups, face many barriers when it comes to voting due to the onslaught of voter restrictions pushed by conservative lawmakers across the country—a problem only exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling gutting portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) meant to safeguard against voter suppression efforts. The 2016 election season will be the first presidential election without those protections.

As many as 875,000 eligible Latino voters could face difficulty voting thanks to new restrictions—such as voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and shortened early voting periods—put into place since the 2012 elections, a May analysis from the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials found.

When it comes to restrictions like this, Huerta “absolutely” saw how they could create barriers for those hoping to cast their ballot this year. “They’ve made all of these restrictions that keep especially the Latino population from voting. So it’s very scary,” said Huerta, pointing to laws in states like Texas, which previously had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. (The state has since agreed to weaken its law following a judge’s order).

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta went on.

Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their voting rights might be targeted in the first place. “What we have to think about is, if they’re doing so much to suppress the vote of the Latino and the African-American community, that means that that vote really counts. It really matters or else why would they be trying to suppress them?”

Appealing to those voters means tapping into the issues Latinos care about. “I think the issues [Latinos care about] are very, very clear,” said Huerta when asked how a presidential candidate could best appeal to the demographic. “I mean, immigration of course is one of the issues that we have, but then education is another one, and health care.”

A February survey conducted jointly by the Washington Post and Univision found that the top five issues Latino voters cared about in the 2016 election cycle were jobs and the economy (33 percent), immigration (17 percent), education (16 percent), health care (11 percent), and terrorism (9 percent).

Another election-year issue that could affect voters is the nomination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Huerta added. She pointed out the effect justices have on our society by using the now-decided Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case as an example. “You know, again, when we think of the presidents, and we think of the Supreme Court and we know that [was] one of the issues that [was] pending in the Supreme Court … whether what they did in Texas … was constitutional or not with all of the restrictions they put on the health clinics,” she said.

Latinas disproportionately face large barriers to reproductive health care. According to Planned Parenthood, they “experience higher rates of reproductive cancers, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than most other groups of people.” Those barriers are only exacerbated by laws like Texas’ HB 2, as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explained in its amicus brief in the Whole Woman’s Health case prior to the decision: “Texas Latinas already face significant geographic, transportation, infrastructure, and cost challenges in accessing health services.”

“H.B. 2’s impact is acute because of the day-to-day struggles many Latinas encounter when seeking to exercise their reproductive rights,” wrote the organization in its brief. “In Texas, there is a dire shortage of healthcare facilities and providers in predominantly Latino communities. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the country, and Texas Latinos are more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured …. Additionally, the lack of public and private transportation creates a major barrier to accessing health services, especially in rural areas.”

As Rewire’s Tina Vasquez has reported, for undocumented women, the struggle to access care can be even greater.

Given the threats cases like Whole Woman’s Health have posed to reproductive rights, Huerta noted that “Trump’s constant attacks and misogynist statements” should be taken with caution. Trump has repeatedly vowed to appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court if elected.

“The things he says without even thinking about it … it shows what a dangerous individual he can be when it comes to women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights,” said Huerta.

Though the race for the White House was a top concern of Huerta’s, she concluded by noting that it is hardly the only election that matters this year. “I think the other thing is we have to really talk about is, the presidency is really important, but so is the Senate and the Congress,” said Huerta.

“We’ve got to make sure we get good people elected at every level, starting at school board level, city council, supervisors, commissioners, etc. state legislatures …. We’ve got to make sure reasonable people will be elected, and reasonable people are voted into office.”

Analysis Law and Policy

The Issue of Trans Student Rights Inches Closer to the Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

With several cases in the legal pipeline, it's becoming a question of when—not whether—the Roberts Court will step into the fight over transgender rights and bathroom access.

On August 29, the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia will file a request asking the U.S. Supreme Court to step into the fight over whether transgender student Gavin Grimm can use the bathroom that aligns with his gender identity. Grimm’s case is not the first of its kind, but it has become one of the most high-profile.

At this point, it’s not a question of whether the Roberts Court is likely to take a case concerning what rights transgender students have under Title IX. It’s more a question of when.

Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. Historically, civil rights advocates have used Title IX to guarantee female students access to equal classes, facilities, and educational opportunities. It’s also recently become an important, if flawed tool in addressing campus sexual assault.

“Basically anything distinguishing between boys and girls or men and women is prohibited under Title IX, unless there is a specific exception in the statute or regulations allowing it to happen,” Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the America Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project and one of the lawyers on Grimm’s case, explained to Rewire in an interview.

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Title IX has some small carve-outs for when and under what conditions schools may discriminate on the basis of sex, Block noted. “The Department of Education has passed very detailed regulations saying when you do and don’t have to integrate a sports team,” he explained. “It’s passed detailed regulations on under what conditions a school [can] offer sex-segregated classes. Those would otherwise be prohibited unless … authorized by the regulation,” he said.

Among the carve-outs for allowable sex-segregation under Title IX is a regulation dealing with restroom and locker room access, which is at the heart of cases like Grimm’s. And it’s that carve-out that has sparked the legal fight over trans rights at school.

“There is a long-standing regulation that says schools can have separate restrooms and can have locker rooms divided by sex,” said Block. “Now fast forward 40 years later and you have school districts saying that this regulation not only gives them permission to have boys’ and girls’ rooms, but it gives them permission to essentially banish transgender kids from those restrooms by saying they can’t use a restroom consistent with their gender identity.”

The legal landscape of trans student rights to access restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity has been shifting well before Grimm’s lawsuit. Since as early as 2009, schools in places like Maine and Illinois have faced lawsuits for prohibiting students from accessing restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Meanwhile, states like California and Colorado have provided affirmative protections for transgender students in the form of nondiscrimination laws so students can use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. But that means transgender students across the country are subject to a patchwork of legal protections that are not uniform across the country: A trans student in California has, at least in theory, more legal protections against discrimination at school than one in Mississippi. So for many trans students, Title IX is the only legal protection against discrimination they have.

Through a series of administrative actions, the Department of Education (DOE) since 2013 has tried to nudge reluctant school administrators toward understanding the difference between providing for sex-segregated facilities and using those facilities as justification for discriminating against transgender students. It has notified federally funded schools that failing to allow transgender students access to restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity will subject those schools to litigation and risk their federal funding. In other words, the DOE made explicit its interpretation of federal law: Schools may have sex-segregated facilities like restrooms, but they cannot determine on the basis of gender identity which students have access to which facilities.

Significantly, the Obama administration filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Grimm’s case, urging the federal appeals court to follow its lead on interpreting Title IX to protect against gender identity discrimination in schools. So far, both the district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals have listened to the administration, deferring to the federal agency on how best to interpret the regulations that agency publishes. Those rulings have been temporarily put on hold while the Gloucester School Board files its request to have the Roberts Court step in.

This brings us to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the lawsuit filed by more than 20 states in May arguing that the Obama administration has overstepped its authority on this matter. It’s similar to the argument raised by Gloucester County in the Grimm case and rejected by the Fourth Circuit.

Raising those arguments in the conservative Fifth Circuit, the same federal appeals court that blocked the Obama administration’s executive action on deportations, is a strategic bet by conservatives that they can get a ruling in their favor. Such a ruling would create a likely circuit split, or disagreement, in the appellate courts—which is exactly the kind of situation the Supreme Court is set up to resolve.

Once again, Justice Anthony Kennedy is poised as the swing vote, the justice each side needs to rule in its favor. And while Kennedy has emerged as a moderate but leading voice in the jurisprudential recognition of LGBTQ rights, he has also been critical of some Obama administration agency action. Cases like Grimm’s, or whichever transgender rights case the Court eventually takes up, will present the ultimate test for Kennedy: Which matters more, his desire to see the “dignity” of the LGBTQ community advance in the law, or his distrust of executive authority—even if that executive authority advances LGBTQ dignity?

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