Commentary Sexual Health

California Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Ruling Underscores Need to Connect Policy to Practice

Nicole Cushman

Although strong policies provide important backing for schools’ decisions about curricula, they do not automatically translate into implementation at the classroom level.

My first trip to the principal’s office happened not as an erstwhile student, but as a sex educator working in a range of public schools in California’s Bay Area. The mother of one of my students had requested a meeting over concerns about the “explicit” nature of the curriculum. After listening to her concerns, I patiently explained the goals and objectives of the program and walked her through the lessons I would cover in her daughter’s freshman health class. Then I sat dumbfounded as the principal assured her the curriculum emphasized abstinence above all else and, while it included information on condoms and birth control, the main message would be it is always best to wait to have sex. The approach described by this well-intentioned principal, sometimes termed “abstinence-based” or “abstinence-plus” education, was, in fact, against California law.

This meeting took place in 2005, two years after California passed the Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act. The law requires sex education in the state’s public middle and high schools to be comprehensive, providing unbiased instruction about both abstinence and the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods, without giving preference to any one option. This approach is in alignment with decades of research demonstrating the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education. Abstinence-only programs, on the other hand, have failed to achieve their stated goal of helping teens wait to have sex.

Another ten years would pass before a judge affirmed the law, ruling just last week that “access to medically and socially appropriate sexual education is an important public right.” In the intervening period, I witnessed myriad examples of spotty implementation, such that I was no longer shocked by schools’ misinterpretations and failures to comply with the law.

In addition to requiring comprehensive and medically accurate education, the Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act also aims to reduce barriers to students accessing such education by allowing parents to opt their children out of the classes if they object, rather than requiring them to proactively opt into the instruction. However, nearly every school in which I taught simply ignored this piece of the statute, sending home opt-in permission slips in an attempt to avoid perceived controversy. (In reality, research suggests the vast majority of parents support comprehensive sexuality education; even the parent who requested the meeting with the principal kept her daughter in the class.)

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What concerned me even more were frequent requests from schools where I taught to omit lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, despite the expressed intent of the law to “encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning … sexual orientation.” School administrators assured me that those topics were covered elsewhere in the curriculum, but my students told a different story. For example, one school held an annual assembly with a theater troupe performing skits about HIV and AIDS that featured one gay character. Students reported that this was the only time sexual orientation was specifically addressed in a formalized way at the school. While such programs offer an important opportunity to normalize depictions of LGBT individuals, deeper discussions in classroom environments are necessary to help students develop a more thorough understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity than what is possible in a large assembly. This understanding is essential in creating inclusive and safe school environments for all students. (LGBT students in schools with LGBT-inclusive curricula hear fewer homophobic and transphobic remarks, are less likely to miss school, and feel more connected to their school community.)

Last week’s ruling, while an important victory, was also a stark reminder of the limitations of public policy as a tool for achieving social change. Although strong policies provide important backing for schools’ decisions about curricula, they do not automatically translate into implementation at the classroom level. Sex education policies rarely have any teeth; enforcement mechanisms are usually slim or lacking entirely, and there are limited resources to support implementation. In the case of California, one state employee is charged with monitoring implementation for the state’s roughly 1,000 school districts. It’s no wonder it took a lawsuit brought by outraged parents, with the assistance of the ACLU, to force the Clovis Unified School District to comply with the law.

I do not discount the essential role of public policy in creating the enabling environment for the implementation of sexuality education. Indeed, without the Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act, Judge Donald S. Black would have had no legal grounds for his ruling. Rather, I believe this case underscores the need to better connect policy to practice by providing funding for implementation; creating systems for enforcement; and encouraging parents, young people, and advocates to be ever vigilant in their activism. If we agree with Judge Black that sex education is a public right, it will take all of these efforts to ensure that right is protected and fulfilled.

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