News Law and Policy

California Schools Required to Teach Comprehensive Sex Ed in 2016

Martha Kempner

The new law spells out what young people across the state must learn and includes information about “sexual harassment, sexual assault, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking.”

A new law, signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown early this month, will make California’s sex education among the most comprehensive in the country as it mandates that all schools address certain topics in ways that are accurate, unbiased, and affirming of LGBTQ students and families.

Schools in California today are required to teach about HIV/AIDS, but can decide whether to provide any additional sexuality education. Though most schools provide some sex education, the instruction was uneven throughout the state, with some students getting a comprehensive course and others receiving just some lessons on abstinence.

In fact, as Rewire reported, one school district was sued for teaching an abstinence-only program that relied on an inaccurate textbook, a fear-based video, and speakers from a local crisis pregnancy center (CPC). The judge ruled that the district was not in compliance with state laws which, though they didn’t require schools to provide sex education, did require any education provided to be medically accurate and free of bias.

Educators and advocates in the state saw this as an example of how the laws that were in place were insufficient. “The previous law was important, but there were districts that were out of compliance with it. [The new law] takes us to a new level,” Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told EdSource.

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The new law spells out what young people across the state must learn and includes information about “sexual harassment, sexual assault, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking.” The law explains that the goal is to provide young people with “the knowledge and skills they need to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family.”

The law specifies that students engage in an “an objective discussion of all legally available pregnancy outcomes, including, but not limited to, parenting, adoption and abortion.”

Information provided must “affirmatively recognize that people have different sexual orientations and, when discussing or providing examples of relationships and couples, shall be inclusive of same-sex relationships.”

This could bring about a big change in a number of school districts.

The previous law, which let schools decide if they addressed sexual orientation at all, meant that LGBTQ students in some schools were “made to feel invisible—or worse, stigmatized—in health classes,” as Burlingame explained to EdSource.

“Our schools are a critical environment for providing young people with the knowledge and skills that they will need to protect their sexual health,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) said in a statement. “This is about empowering all young men and women—whatever their orientation or gender—to make the healthiest decisions possible.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson added that this education would make LGBTQ youth safer in school.

Burlingame believes that the law “really vaults California into a leadership role nationally on this issue, particularly in terms of the content related to LGBTQ youth and needing to affirmatively address gender identity and sexual orientation.”

Not everyone is pleased with the change.

“School districts now have no choice based on their own community attitudes whether sex education is appropriate and the degree of sex ed is appropriate,” Brad Dacus, president of the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Dacus noted his concern with the new law’s call to tell students that if treated, HIV-positive individuals can have a normal life expectancy. He feels that this is putting a “positive spin” on AIDS. “At no time should political agendas shortchange a straightforward and truthful education,” he said. “The controversial provisions, without question, make this legislation a huge mistake for the health and safety and balanced truth that is needed for students in our public schools.”

Despite the opposition, the Democratic-controlled California legislature passed the bill—largely along party lines—in September and Brown signed it October 1. It goes into effect on January 1.

Advocates across the country hopes it is used as an example. “Comprehensive sexuality education is more than just information about abstinence and contraception and condoms, it’s empowering young people with the knowledge and skills they need—and have the right to—to lead healthy lives,” Jesseca Boyer, interim president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, told Rewire. “We hope more states are able to follow California’s lead in supporting the health and well-being of all young people.”

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 Sexual Health

Centering Disabled People in Conversations About Menstruation

s.e. smith

It is not a surprise that disabled people have a spectrum of feelings about menstruation, as do nondisabled people. Too often, however, disabled people tend to be among the last of those consulted about policy and best practice recommendations when it comes to their reproductive health and rights—starting as early as their adolescent years.

For Dee, who works with a disability nonprofit in New York state, menstruation is a frustrating balancing act, especially after an injury that limited her mobility. Dee, who asked that Rewire not use her last name, must coordinate with her personal care attendant to put on underwear and a pad before transferring to her wheelchair and adjusting them. The perennial struggle with keeping pads in place can come at a high cost to undergarments, clothes, and wheelchair cushions.

“I hate it. If I could make it stop, I would gladly do so. I have told my family and health-care providers that if I ever need to be anesthetized again, I would prefer they perform a hysterectomy while I’m knocked out,” Dee told Rewire.

Meanwhile, Alice Wong, a disability rights activist and organizer who lives in San Francisco, says that “menstruation is a nice reminder that something is ‘working normally’ in my body when there are so many other aspects to my body that are not.” She has limited hand strength and dexterity, paired with elbow contractures that make it impossible for her to use the toilet independently. Her parents, who act as her caregivers, assist her with her bathroom needs as well as use of menstruation supplies. For her, menstruation can present some personal care challenges, and she noted that pads in particular can pose problems because they tend to dislodge while she’s transferring in and out of her chair or moving around during the course of the day.

Wong came up with an innovative solution that would allow her to menstruate in comfort: “As I got older and stopped caring what other people thought, I went with disposable briefs instead of pads. That’s right—disposable briefs that are used for incontinence! There’s better coverage and absorption. And they’re a lot easier to pull on.”

These experiences serve to reinforce the fact that in discussions about menstruation and disability, disabled people themselves need to be centered. It is not a surprise that they have a spectrum of feelings about menstruation, as do nondisabled people. Too often, however, disabled people tend to be among the last of those consulted about policy and best practice recommendations when it comes to their reproductive health and rights—starting as early as their adolescent years.

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So when the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with updated guidelines on the subject of menstrual management among disabled teens in June, some disability activists worried that the document could be yet another iteration of policy about disability that didn’t consult disabled people themselves.

The document turned out to be a pleasant surprise, though, and an indication that the AAP is continuing to lead a progressive turnaround on thinking about both adolescent health and disability. When it comes to disability and medical practice, conversations often center the convenience and desires of caregivers, parents, and guardians. Instead, this document focused on issues of relevance to the disability community, particularly with regard to the abuse of menstrual suppression, which doctors sometimes recommend to disabled patients and their caregivers.

Advocates for menstrual suppression in disabled people, by both hormonal and surgical means, argue that it’s necessary in cases of “severe” disability where people might experience hardship with their periods. This can include the challenges of managing menstruation when people have limited mobility and rely on caregivers for assistance with activities of daily living, including toileting. They also assert that menstruation can be “traumatic” for people with intellectual, cognitive, or developmental disabilities. Furthermore, they claim, people who menstruate can get pregnant—often seen by nondisabled people as undesirable, though it can disturbingly be the first and only sign of sexual abuse.

These arguments primarily focus on the convenience and preference of caregivers who don’t want to deal with menstruation, and they strip disabled people of autonomy. Many people have very complex, intimate, and personal relationships with their period. Letting disabled people speak in their own words about their experiences with menstruation should be central to any conversation about menstrual suppression, especially extreme measures like the so-called Ashley Treatment, in which the uterus and breast buds are removed and children are medicated to attenuate their growth, ensuring that they remain small and light. Though it is overwhelmingly rare, parents say the treatment makes their children easier to handle, reducing the risk that they have to surrender their children to care facilities.

The AAP guidelines, hearteningly, center the patient from the very first line, stressing that they must be involved in discussions about such a sensitive issue. The organization states clearly that menstrual suppression shouldn’t be done for the wrong reasons: “When the stated reasons for suppression are an inability of caregivers to deal with menses or fear of abuse or pregnancy, further investigation into the patient’s circumstances and safety is warranted. If the issue is mainly to get assistance at school, then health care providers can help families to address the student’s needs with the school.”

The document stresses that physicians should fully evaluate the medical and social needs of their disabled patients—including interest in sexual activity—before making a menstrual management recommendation that suits their circumstances. The authors discuss a variety of hormonal and nonhormonal birth control options and some of their implications for disabled people, but do not make specific recommendations.

This focus on choice, again, reflects disabled people’s wide variety of experience with menstruation. Wong, for example, said while she has “options to suppress menstruation whether via an IUD or oral contraceptives” and “considered it in an effort to simplify my life and personal care needs,” she ultimately decided against it.

For her, the challenges are worth it: Taking control of her period by using pads and disposable briefs is an assertion of her independence.

Sam de Leve, an athlete from Southern California who also spoke to Rewire about their relationship with menstruation, experiences relatively light periods thanks to an IUD and finds that this provides some conveniences—but they aren’t using the IUD for menstrual suppression and aren’t sure they’d actively seek it out for that purpose.

When it comes to the loaded politics of the Ashley Treatment, de Leve commented, “It seems a little convenient that they target the most gendered parts of the body (breasts, uterus) when deciding what to remove. They’d make transfers easier if they removed arms or legs, but Lord knows they don’t do that! So I don’t believe that these are solely practical considerations or even primarily motivated by practical considerations. I think some of these families have this innocent ‘pillow angel’ mental image of their child, and this aspect of these procedures is about maintaining that image, not just the functional argument many of these care providers make to justify the Ashley Treatment. This is consistent with the desexualization of people with intellectual disabilities, or thought to have intellectual disabilities.”

Their comments echo concerns of those in the larger disability community who worry that practices like menstrual suppression serve to desexualize disabled people, but don’t actually offer concrete benefits. This is something the AAP itself also discusses, commenting that disabled youth are sexually active, but also experience higher rates of sexual abuse, adding, “It is important to discuss that any menstrual suppression does not change the risk of abuse or sexually transmitted infections.”

In their discussion of the Ashley Treatment, which was sharply condemned by a working group after its development, the authors also include stern warnings about the history of coerced sterilization in disabled people, and they caution that such procedures have “clear ethical and legal implications.”

Disabled youth are often given inadequate sexual health education, including education about menstruation, and they’re ill-prepared for the onset of menarche. Guardians, parents, and caregivers are sometimes under the impression that they’re doing their charges a favor by suppressing menstruation without consulting them, but they’re not turning to adults who menstruate to ask them about their own experiences. If they did, they might find that disabled individuals would like to be able to make that choice for themselves. In a culture where disabled people are both figuratively and literally desexualized, hiding menstruation doesn’t resolve issues like the abuse and dehumanization of disabled people—it just sweeps these problems under the carpet.

These guidelines may serve as a wakeup call to pediatricians that it’s wise to discuss concerns about menstruation before its onset with patients and their parents. A conversation about what to expect and the options available can encourage people to think about their needs and wants ahead of time. Disabled youth tend to be very isolated from the rest of the disability community, and encouraging parents to connect their children with adult disabled mentors who can help them navigate menstruation and other matters can be rewarding for all parties, including parents who may feel at sea when it comes to caring for their children.

In recent years, the AAP has distinguished itself with common-sense, but still radical, policy proposals, like its recent recommendation to use long-acting reversible contraceptives to prevent teen pregnancy, and explicit discussion of disabled patients using contraceptives, reminding pediatricians and the public that disabled youth have sex. The organization is presenting factual, evidence-based information to its members when it comes to youth sexual health, and raising the prospect that teens will be empowered to take charge of their own fertility and choices, regardless of disability status and sexual history.


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