Feature

Sexual Education Program Draws Heated Debate

By Megan Yee, Print Editor in Chief

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   The typical Acalanes Union School District (AUHSD) board meeting is a relatively quiet affair, where the gallery seats are empty or occupied by a few AUHSD teachers or community members. However, over 25 attendees packed the December 10 meeting to vocalize wide ranging opinions about the ongoing controversy surrounding Acalanes High School’s sexual health education program.

   The 19 passionate speeches that dominated the public comment session showed layers of stances on the issue, ranging from demanding the removal of Planned Parenthood programs from campus, to criticizing the district’s transparency and communication with parents, to voicing strong support for the current sex ed curriculum.

   Acalanes senior Sam Fraser spoke first in support of Planned Parenthood, emphasizing the importance of scientific and comprehensive sexual education.

   “This is debate is not just about what is sound educational policy, but what is sound health policy,” Fraser said. “Comprehensive sex education provides for a healthier society, and it must be preserved.”

   A number of other student and alumni speakers echoed Fraser’s comments, while others stood in the audience holding signs in support of Planned Parenthood. However, Acalanes parent Robin Longchamps took the stand third to advocate for the immediate removal of Planned Parenthood from classrooms.

   “The district needs to find a new, more responsible program immediately or use your own teachers. Planned Parenthood is a conflict of interest at Acalanes, a company that offers health services, including abortion, and offers products and drugs to 14-year-olds,” Longchamps said. “For instance, would you be okay if one of your teachers offered an Acalanes student their business such as piercings, supplements, or when legal, marijuana sales?”

   Camille Giglio, a member of the local No to Irresponsible Sex Education (NOISE) coalition, spoke at an earlier board meeting but took the stand again to reiterate her point.

    “I feel very sad for most of these students who are merely mouthing everything Planned Parenthood has taught them, and even some of the parents who seem to think Planned Parenthood is next to God and there is nothing else more important,” Giglio said.

   Acalanes parents Christina Lyons, John Lyons, and Cathy Holt voiced opinions that fell in between the two extremes and asked for more transparency from the district.

   “We believe that comprehensive sexual education is critical for all of our kids,” Christina Lyons said at the board meeting. “What we’re asking for is that we get to see the program so we can have more accurate and comprehensive discussions with our students around the dinner table. What we’re asking for is a closer look at the way material is delivered.”

   After the speeches concluded, AUHSD superintendent John Nickerson addressed the public, saying that the board would discuss the subject further at a board meeting in the spring.

   Acalanes Principal Allison Silvestri, who was present at the meeting, is well aware of the range of perspectives in the controversy.

   “There is a large spectrum.The goals are a moving target. People have different belief systems, ethical systems, perspectives, different understandings of what has taken place,” Silvestri said. “There is so much misinformation all over the place, and there are so many requests. It’s hard to wade through all the waters of what is being asked for.”

   The controversy first received local news coverage in late October, when NOISE members accused the district of allowing Planned Parenthood to indoctrinate students and encourage them to have sex.

   “Planned Parenthood is an inappropriate outside organization that is taking advantage of this opportunity to find future clients for themselves,” Giglio said to Blueprint before the board meeting began. “This is taking young lives and encouraging them to merely think of their bodies as playgrounds.”

    Griffin Holt, an Acalanes junior who spoke at the meeting, felt that instructors delivered the material in a way that implied students were sexually active. He emphasized that he is not opposed to Planned Parenthood curriculum itself, just the way the material is delivered.

   “They addressed the class as if everyone was having sex,” Holt said. “There were a lot of hypotheticals but they implied that they were true.”

   However, other students who have taken the course disagreed and never felt like Planned Parenthood instructors were encouraging them to have sex.

   “The instructors were very friendly and didn’t seem to be pressuring us to have sex or insinuate anything of a sexual nature further than their lectures required them to,” freshman Andrew Che said.

   Some of those opposed to Planned Parenthood also asserted that they do not teach abstinence in the curriculum. California state law mandates that comprehensive sexual education programs teach about abstinence, but abstinence-only education is illegal.

   “It’s encouraged as the only way to prevent pregnancy and prevent STIs. You don’t have to teach sexual health education. You have to HIV/AIDS prevention,” Nickerson said. “There’s some overlap, but if you do teach sexual health education, it cannot be abstinence only education.”

   Some critics challenged whether Acalanes could contract Planned Parenthood to teach the program. However, California State Education Code section 51938 states that districts may allow outside consultants to teach comprehensive sex education as long as the district notifies parents ahead of time. Education Code section 51938 also mandates that parents and guardians be able to excuse their students from the program, so Acalanes sends an opt-out form that explicitly states that Planned Parenthood teaches the program.

   Although Planned Parent educators teach the courses, students’ regular certified physical education teachers are present in the classroom at all times.

   The California Department of Education (CDE) recommends Planned Parenthood as a provider, and public schools across the state use it, according to Nickerson. Acalanes has used Planned Parenthood for over a decade, and the Acalanes Parent Club began funding the program when Planned Parenthood started having to charge schools because they lost some funds from the government.

   “The district and the board are committed to providing strong sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention education in our schools,” AUHSD Board president Susie Epstein said. “Planned Parenthood has an excellent reputation for providing age-appropriate instruction using objective and medically accurate information within the requirements and parameters of the Education Code.”

   However, the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a non-profit conservative legal defense organization, published a press release on December 8 questioning the legality of certain aspects of the curriculum, specifically a document titled “Sex Check!” that lists criteria for being ready to have sex and a chart of a “Genderbread Person.”

   PJI says that the checklist suggests that teens are ready for sex if they can check off all the criteria. PJI also challenges the check-list’s legality because Ed Code Section 51938 states that any evaluation tools, including surveys, questionnaires, and tests concerning students’ attitudes or practices relating to sex can only be administered with parent consent.

   The district does not consider the checklist to be a survey, test, or questionnaire because students are not required to fill it out, no data is collected, and teachers nor administrators look at anything the student does choose to fill out. Instructors use the handout as a warm-up to get students thinking about the topic before a classroom discussion on the same subject matter.

   “The point of these checklists is not to show that you are ready for sex. The point of them is to show frankly the opposite,” said sophomore Jonah Kallen, who took the course. “It’s to show you that it’s very difficult to check off everything on that list and that it is just the same very difficult to show you are ready.”

   PJI also questions the use of the “genderbread person” illustration to teach the gender spectrum, saying that it encourages students to “choose their gender”.

    According to Nickerson, California State law mandates that schools teach about gender identity. Students at the board meeting discussed the importance of learning about gender identity and how they believe it pertains to supporting a healthy school environment.

   “Planned Parenthood’s lessons don’t instruct high school freshman to define themselves with unconventional gender identities,” senior Chris Mickas said. “The lessons teach students to be more comfortable with themselves and with other students who might not conform to traditional roles. They help give factual information and motivation for students to develop the culture of tolerance and acceptance that the school strives for.”

   The press release also claims that “students reported that instructors threw a model of female reproductive organs at students.” According to Silvestri, no students reported this directly, but a parent brought it to her attention. She asked the certified teachers who sat in on every class, and none of them said they witnessed the behavior.

   Brad Dacus, president of the PJI, attended the board meeting but was hesitant to talk specifically about the controversy because PJI is currently providing counsel for several parents. However, he did comment broadly on the situation.

   “A school district that has a proper process in play, does not reach this point,” Dacus said. “Parents have voiced their concerns for quite some time and when you have proper notice, when you have proper respect for the state and federal statutes regarding not only opting out but also consent, then you have a proper foundation that can help prevent this kind of a confrontation.”

   Giglio also stated in her speech to the board  that news of the issue has circulated nationwide. While this statement is accurate, the national publicity is largely due to an article published on Fox News’ website that claiming that Acalanes is encouraging students to have sex and choose their gender.

   The Fox News story was originally posted on December 9 and shares key similarities with the PJI press release. The Fox article and Lamorinda Patch’s posting of the PJI press release prompted a group of around 15 students and alumni to attend, and in some cases speak, at the board meeting in support of Planned Parenthood. In addition, alumni sounded off on social media to show support.

   Nickerson and Silvestri believe that outside groups’ and the media’s involvement have been detrimental to the situation. Administrators have received hateful phone calls and hundreds of emails from people, many of whom do not live in California.

   “Some of the organizations that are not rooted in our attendance area- their involvement has in some respects distracted from the positive discussion we can have on this important issue,” Nickerson said. “It has spread misinformation and sensationalized things and taken things out of context. It’s been counterproductive to moving our curriculum and instruction forward to provide the best quality for students.”

   Although groups like NOISE and the Pacific Justice Institute that want to see Planned Parenthood removed, some parents in the district don’t necessarily object to the organization itself but want to see changes in how the curriculum is delivered and presented to parents.

   Christina and John Lyons started an online petition asking the district to “fully disclose the complete sexual education curriculum taught by Planned Parenthood” and to implement a parent preview night for material. However, they emphasize that the purpose of the petition is not to eliminate comprehensive sex ed or Planned Parenthood from schools.

   The Lyons first became concerned two years ago when their daughter took the course. They raised concerns and requested information at the time because they were surprised by the depth and breadth of the material and felt it went beyond what was described in the bullet points provided on the opt-out form, according to Christina Lyons. They began asking questions again this current school year.

   “Because we have a freshman, we began asking the school to provide us with full course materials and classroom instruction in October of this year,” Christina Lyons said. “To date, we have received 8 bullet points describing the class and five handouts students receive in the class. We still have not received full course content.”

   The 8 bullet points that Lyons refers to are on the opt-out form sent to parents before the program. However, Education Code section 51938 states that written and audiovisual materials used in sexual education instruction must be available for inspection by parents.

   Silvestri has the Planned Parenthood worksheets in a binder in her office available to parents. However, Christina Lyons said that Silvestri would not provide lesson plans, access to audiovisual materials used in the program, or allow her to sit in on a class.

   “The content of sex education intersects with the wide array of family values and morals that exist. Parents need this transparency to effectively make participation choices, fill in gaps, and provide balance and perspective with their own morals and values,” John Lyons said. “This recommendation considers the beliefs and values of all families. “

   Silvestri said that other than the student handouts, the teacher lesson plans and other material that she had is from previous years and she cannot be sure that it lines up exactly with the current classes. However, she met with Planned Parenthood educators on December 15 to revise the material and lesson plans for the upcoming January course, and it will be available for inspection on December 16.

   “I’m making sure that I have the most up to date curriculum as in education curriculum always changes,” Silvestri said. “It’s a dynamic and moving piece. Teachers change what they do every year and they update, they get feedback and make changes.”

   In regards to parents or guardians sitting in on classes, the district does not allow parent attendance in the class when the principal feels it would disrupt the educational process, according to Nickerson. Silvestri said she felt that allowing a parent to attend a sexual education class could potentially make other students uncomfortable.

   Longchamps also raised concerns about the availability of curriculum in her speech at the board meeting and on the comment section of the petition, saying that she her requests to see materials were not granted.

   Nickerson, Silvestri, and P.E. teacher Chris Clark said they think this was due to miscommunication, in part because at least some of the requests were made via email.

     “I think that the issue was poor communication between- a lack of understanding between party requests,” Silvestri said. “While she is clear about what she wanted, it was not clear to the others involved. They were also very short timelines for the requests- several within a day.”

   Longchamps declined to be interviewed.

   The petition also points out that a memorandum of understanding between the district and Planned Parenthood was not signed until 10 days after the first course began on October 6. While it is true that it was signed late, a memorandum is not legally required at all and was put in place for clarification, according to Nickerson.

   “We have to follow education code, board policy and administrative regulations about how sexual health education is taught, but that does not require a memorandum of understanding,” Silvestri said.

   In his speech to the board, John Lyons brought up the issue of how the district chooses its sex ed provider.

   “What we’re requesting is that there be a more open process for the administration to listen to our concerns,” John Lyons said. “The program should not be handed to Planned Parenthood just because they’ve been doing it for a long time. We request that there be an actual process for vendor selection that allows people to be heard.”

   P.E. teacher Chris Huber sees the sex ed instruction first-hand and believes that the instructors are much more up-to-date and informative than teachers are. Students, however, have mixed feelings about the arrangement.

   “I would much rather have my PE teacher teach it to me,” sophomore Mia Westphal said. “I feel more connected with a teacher that I’ve been around for a full year. It would be much better than just strangers coming into the classroom.”

   Griffin Holt also felt that Planned Parenthood instructors approached the material too light-heartedly and that they should have been more serious about some topics. Other students felt the opposite, saying that they liked the instructors and prefer that someone other than their usual teacher to handle the instruction.

   “It’s sex ed. It’s going to be awkward,” Kallen said. “It would be just as weird, if not more weird if a PE teacher taught the course.”

   106 signed the petition, and around 90 percent  were Acalanes parents, according to Christina Lyons. She submitted it to the board at the December 10 meeting.

   The district plans to address the issue further in spring 2015, and the petition will be considered when making plans for the future to improve the program and communication with parents. Both Silvestri and Nickerson said that they are considering changes to the vendor selection process and thinking about what a parent preview night would look like and how they could execute one in the future.

   “We’re in general looking at our board policies regarding sexual health,” Nickerson said. “We’ll think about instructional delivery. There has been some really positive outcomes of this process.”

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