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.”

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