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.”

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

No Need to Block Bathroom Access for Transgender Student, Attorneys Tell Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A transgender student in Virginia sued the local school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity was unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing transgender student Gavin Grimm told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that there was no reason to block a lower court order guaranteeing Grimm access to school restrooms that align with his gender identity while Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board proceeds.

Grimm in 2015 sued the school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity—thus separating transgender students from their peers—was unconstitutional. Attorneys representing Grimm argued that the policy violates the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

A lower district court ruled the school board’s policy did not violate Grimm’s rights. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, reversing that decision and sending the case back to the lower court, which then blocked the school district from enforcing its policy while Grimm’s case proceeds.

In response, the school board notified the Fourth Circuit of its intent to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and requested the appellate court stay its order granting Grimm access to bathrooms aligned with his gender identity—a decision the Fourth Circuit granted in June.

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The school board then asked the Roberts Court to issue an emergency stay of the lower court decision blocking its bathroom policy while the Court considers taking Grimm’s case.

Grimm’s attorneys argue there is no basis for the Roberts Court to grant the emergency stay requested by the school board. The board has “utterly failed to demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm” if Grimm is allowed to use the boys’ restroom at Gloucester High School while the Roberts Court considers stepping into the case at all, according to Grimm’s attorneys.

Attorneys for the school board filed their request with Chief Justice John Roberts, who handles petitions from the Fourth Circuit. Roberts can rule on the school board’s request to block the lower court decision, or he can refer the request to the entire Court to consider.

It is not known when Roberts or the Court will make that choice.

The Gloucester County School Board has argued that the Obama administration overstepped its authority in protecting transgender student rights. Attorneys for the school board said that overreach began in 2012, when an administration agency issued an opinion that said refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

The administration expanded that opinion in October 2015 and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy violated federal law.

The administration again expanded that opinion in May this year into a directive stating that should publicly funded schools deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law, subject to lawsuits, and risking their federal funding.

The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on these actions in initially siding with Grimm earlier this year.