SEX EDUCATION IN THE OBAMA ERA:
Progress Continues, Though Heightened Fears about Teen Pregnancy and LGBTQ Issues Spur Familiar Debates
2008-09 School Year
by Maxwell Ciardullo, Information Coordinator
Rebecca Di Meo, Community Advocacy Intern
Renee Muza, Community Advocacy Intern
In the 2008-09 school year, advocates of comprehensive sexuality education witnessed a seismic political change as the nation elected Barack Obama, the first U.S. President to campaign on his support for sex education. At the beginning of his term, he expressed his intention to end federal funding for failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and to begin funding sex education that includes accurate information about contraception. This support on the national level has continued to fuel the changes SIECUS has monitored over the past few years. Communities across the country began to add information about, and access to, condoms and contraceptives and challenge abstinence-only programs. This year we also saw a number of school districts that improved their sex education after being spurred by state education laws and guidelines.
In the midst of these positive trends, SIECUS has also been paying close attention to the obstacles that remain. We’ve noticed that conversations about sex education are often being whittled down to panicked debates over how to reduce teen pregnancy. In other communities, curricula that discuss sex, contraceptives, or sexual orientation are still coming under fire by abstinence-only ideologues and parents uncomfortable with honest conversations about these topics. These same forces persist in their opposition to discussions or acknowledgements of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) people or issues. While students have made great progress in their push for respect and support, sexual orientation and gender identity continue to be flashpoints for controversy.
SIECUS has been tracking controversies regarding sexuality education for over 15 years and tracked over 200 stories this year alone. This special report provides examples of the types of controversies communities faced during the 2008–09 school year, as well as ongoing analysis that attempts to put each controversy into a broader perspective both historically and moving forward.
TEEN PREGNANCY PANIC MOTIVATES CHANGES
In the 2008–09 school year, teen pregnancy was once again an incredibly important motivator for school districts that considered changes to their sex education curricula. This is no surprise because the national conversation about what young people should learn about sex and sexuality in school has largely narrowed to a conversation about how to prevent teens from getting pregnant. Even the Obama administration’s promised sex education initiative was unveiled as a teen pregnancy prevention program. This trend is also being fueled by the recent reversal of the national decline in teen births and pregnancies. The result is that many communities across the country are startled and outraged about the high, and often increasing, rates of teen pregnancy in their area. We tracked over 30 communities this year where advocates cited teen pregnancy numbers as justification for proposed sex education curriculum changes.
In Gaston County, NC, the health department made the case to the school district that including contraceptive information in sex education is necessary to bring down high teen pregnancy rates. The county health director reported that 519 young women between 15 and 19 became pregnant in 2007 in Gaston County, which is greater than the state average.
The board of education’s curriculum committee also broached the topic in March 2008, but focused on abstinence-only approaches. The district reported that it discussed sex with fifth and sixth graders for 90 minutes as part of an abstinence-only program. Districts in North Carolina are required to teach about abstinence until marriage, but may also include lessons on birth control and condoms if the school board holds a public meeting, shares materials with parents, and votes to adopt it.
The county health director has spoken out in response, saying that not teaching about contraception was one of the “leading factors” in the increase in Gaston County teen pregnancies since 2003. She recommended including information about contraceptives and increasing the time dedicated to sex education.
One school board member seemed open to the discussion, saying “We’re concerned as is the Health Department about the number of teenage pregnancies. In a partnership with parents, we will certainly look at the issue.” However, the chairman of the curriculum committee was less interested, remarking that he was not aware of the number of teen pregnancies and that the district would continue to teach abstinence-until-marriage.
In the meantime, the health department is prioritizing reducing teen pregnancies and is sponsoring sex education workshops in the local library for high school-aged young women, as well as hosting a teen clinic.
A similar story unfolded in Lee County, IA when a local pregnancy prevention coalition cited high teen birth rates as reason to adopt a new sex education curriculum. The Lee County Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Coalition was formed after a district task force indentified teen pregnancy as one of the contributors to the high school’s 69% graduation rate in the 2005–2006 school year.
The coalition recommended the Safer Choices curriculum in their talks with administrators and made the case for implementing it in middle schools. “Kids aren’t aware of consequences, and how their choices can change their lives forever. If we don’t talk about these things, such as pregnancy and safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases, the statistics will keep rising,” said the program coordinator of the coalition.
The district’s interim superintendent said she hadn’t looked at the curriculum yet, but agreed that the teen pregnancy rate is concerning. She planned to explore a number of options to meet the state’s human growth and development requirements. By the 2008–09 school year, the district began to teach the Safer Choices program in the middle schools and instituted an additional after school program.
In Washington, PA, the district administration did not wait to be publicly prompted by the local advocates or health officials, but suggested a curriculum change itself. The school superintendent cited a rise in teen pregnancies at the high school and suggested an expansion of the Teen Outreach Program. The program currently offers sex education to students in eighth through 12th grades and the proposed expansion would allow fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students to access it as well.
Despite the superintendent making the case that offering sex education to younger students would bring the teen pregnancy rate down, some parents objected. One parent, quoted on a local news show, said that she believes “fifth grade is really too young to know about that. I think children are introduced to sex education early enough as it is and parents need to be more involved with their children, and need to talk to them first.” The superintendent responded by reminding parents that the program is not mandatory, but an elective.
The district eventually decided to expand the program, as its website currently lists the Teen Outreach Program as a part of the sixth and seventh grade health curriculum. The fifth grade curriculum is not available yet.
In two Wisconsin cities, the issue of teen pregnancy became particularly salient as statistics spurred electoral changes on the school board and funding partnerships with outside organizations. Students in Beloit, WI have been without sex education for five years and the inaction by the school board was one of the issues that compelled voters to elect three new board members in April 2009. In the past, board members have not agreed on what to include in a sex education program, so the issue was constantly tabled. One of the reasons it gained importance this year was a reported spike in teen pregnancies.
The new school board chair reported in February 2010 that the district is looking into sex education programs and that he is open to a program that includes information on contraception and disease prevention. The assistant superintendent is currently compiling a report on possible curricula. He said that although the district is still exploring options, they are well aware of their students’ lack of education. “We have all kinds of data that shows our kids are pretty uninformed of the kinds of decisions they are making,” he said.
The school board chair explained that the reason the district doesn’t already have a program in place is that the Wisconsin legislature is currently finalizing a bill that would affect sex education in schools and he wanted to make sure the district would be in compliance. As the state senator from Beloit explained, the impetus for the state-wide policy change was also the “current epidemic” of teen pregnancy and STDs.
A little farther north, in Milwaukee, WI, the school district was working to finalize its new curriculum as part of its partnership with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee to reduce teen pregnancy.
The United Way’s goal is to drastically reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 2015 and its plan is to start with the 2008–09 fourth grade class and follow them through high school with updated sex education programming. In its advocacy, the organization has stressed the cost of teen births to the city, as well as the fact that “Milwaukee is one of the Top Ten cities within the U.S. with the highest percentage of total births to teen mothers.” The school district, also concerned about the teen pregnancy rate and other sexual health issues, embarked on this K–12 update process over the summer of 2008 and shared the program with the school board over the fall.
The board had no objections and the program is now in place, with students receiving human growth and development lessons in grades K–8 and during health class in high school. The previous curriculum had not been updated since 2002. The implementation process has largely been funded by the United Way, which has paid for the district’s teacher trainings, materials, and meetings costs associated with the new program.
In addition to working with the schools, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee has also written a report, If Truth Be Told: Teen pregnancy, public health, and the cycle of poverty, brought together an oversight committee to collaborate with city agencies and organizations, and created a media campaign intended to “help youths to understand the consequences of teen pregnancy.” The PSAs, done in the style of a horror movie trailer, attracted particular attention after some commentators compared their fear-based approach to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
In each of these communities, advocates concerned about teen pregnancy worked hard to implement sex education programs that included accurate information about contraception.
SCHOOLS DEBATE ACCESS TO CONTRACEPTION
In many other communities, teen pregnancy data compelled advocates to push for more than just accurate information; they wanted contraception to be available to students in school-based health centers.
Perhaps the most widely followed story about teen pregnancy in the past year involved just such a policy change. Gloucester, MA, which made national headlines in May 2008 when 17 students were reported pregnant at the high school, made contraception available to its students after a school board vote in October 2008.
The district had been discussing the possibility of allowing students access to contraception since the spring of 2008, but the explosive controversy and national media attention over the alleged “pregnancy pact” between the 17 young pregnant women temporarily derailed the conversation. After the media storm settled, Gloucester school officials released a new draft policy in September 2008 that would institute a sexuality education program that encourages effective contraceptive use as well as abstinence, free day-care services for the teen mothers who are students at the high school, and contraceptive availability (with parental consent) through the school-based health clinic. With acknowledgment from the superintendent that the majority of teenagers are sexually active, the school committee unanimously voted to allow students access to contraceptives within the school-based health clinic in October.
Reaction to the decision was mostly positive. A school survey showed that 86 percent of students were in favor of contraception availability. One mother, whose daughter is one of the 17 new teen mothers, said she also supports the distribution of contraceptives with parental consent.
In nearby Revere, MA, the mayor and School Committee were paying attention to the example of Gloucester and decided that their own teen pregnancy statistics warranted similar action. However, their proposal to make contraceptives available to high school students in the school-based health center did generate some opposition.
After the Gloucester controversy, the director of the health center began to look at Revere’s teen pregnancy numbers and found that the high school had seen a 50 percent increase in teen pregnancy between the 2005–06 and 2007–08 school years. The mayor joined him in concern and expressed support for the idea of making contraceptives available at school-based health centers.
School committee members held a number of discussions and approved the measure at the end of February, but it has since received some criticism for both its handling of the vote and the decision itself.
One of the members of the school committee spoke out against the policy saying that she “couldn’t in good conscience vote for it… It increases promiscuity rather than having it be a deterrent to early sex.” The school has also received criticism from a priest in the local Catholic Church who said the decision was “not good for children because we’re telling them that sex is a mechanical thing.”
The same committee members who voted against the policy have also criticized the school for not involving more parents in the process. They believe there should have been fliers and announcements about the vote because the issue of providing students with contraception is potentially controversial.
The mayor responded that the decision was a matter of public health, made with the input of the local hospital that runs the school-based health center. He also reiterated that the school committee meetings are open to all parents and that the health center staff encourages students to talk to their parents.
The new policy allows high school students who are enrolled in the school-based health center to receive several forms of contraception if their parents sign up for the service when they enroll. Contraceptive services will include condoms, birth control pills, birth control shots, and emergency contraception pills. Opponents of the policy continued their complaints and were successful in adding a ballot initiative to overturn the policy on the November 2009 ballot. However, the initiative was defeated in a 3,404–2,695 vote and the district’s school-based health center is now making contraceptives available.
Controversy also emerged in Cumberland County, NJ schools when teen pregnancy rates prompted two high schools to decide whether to open school-based health centers that would provide contraceptive services.
In April 2008, the retirement of the Cumberland Regional High School (CRHS) school nurse created what school officials deemed “a void” in the services being provided at the school. Officials agreed that the nurse had been instrumental in working beyond her “regular responsibilities” to connect students in need of health services with transportation to community-based medical centers where they could receive comprehensive health care. To help fill this void, school board members met in May with Community Health Care, Inc., a group of community-based medical centers, to discuss the possibility of opening of a comprehensive health clinic on school grounds.
Community Health Care already operates in-school comprehensive health care clinics at two high schools in Cumberland County. Both of those school-based health centers also offer Community Health Care’s Sexual Accountability for Everyone (SAFE) program, which was a part of the proposal for CRHS. The SAFE program provides sexual health services, including gynecological exams, pregnancy and STD tests, and birth control prescriptions. Millville Senior High School, the fourth high school in the county, considered a similar proposal as well.
Although most CRHS board members acknowledged that the retirement of the school nurse had created a void, some did not believe there was a need for a full service health clinic that included sexual health services on campus. However, after a meeting with the SAFE director it became obvious that some members of the board were unaware of how high the pregnancy rate actually was at CRHS. One board member was quoted in April as saying she “was only aware of 3 or 4 pregnancies at CRHS last year” and that “we don’t have a pregnancy problem at Regional.” However, that same week the Cumberland County director of SAFE maintained that students from CRHS had in fact accounted for a total of “30 pregnancies…during the 2007–2008 school year.” She added “you can bet that every time that there was a pregnancy test, someone was having unprotected sex.”
After further discussion among health care providers and school administrators, the board’s only remaining concerns were about parental consent and making sure parents had explicit notice of “what they are giving consent to when they allow their teenagers to visit the [school-based health center].”
In September 2009, both the CRHS District and Millville Senior High School District voted to approve and begin the SAFE program at health centers in their schools. Parents were given a detailed permission form at the beginning of the year and a CRHS board member explained “We feel that we gave parents adequate opportunity to express what they want for their child.” The services will be administered by a nurse that visits the schools throughout the week.
In Daly City, CA, similar concerns about teen pregnancy drove the principal of Thornton High School to suggest a condom availability program for students. Thornton serves 130 students deemed “high risk” by the district because of struggles with academics or other personal issues and the principal cited 36 student pregnancies in the past two years. The school special-services counselor also reported having over 100 conversations with students about STD or pregnancy scares. The principal summarized the statistics and his understanding of the students’ sexual behavior, saying “While most adults like to believe kids are not doing this, the reality is they are. It’s very scary.”
Given this information, the principal believed it was time to start making condoms available to students. He began by encouraging the superintendent and school district trustees to examine a proposal that would allow the Daly City Youth Health Center, which already partners with the district, to provide condoms to the students in schools after they complete a confidential meeting with a center counselor.
One trustee seemed sympathetic to the program, stating “we feel like we’re at the point that we want to move ahead with this pilot program over there on condom distribution for both prevention of STDs and prevention of teen pregnancies.” Press accounts of the story showed little opposition to the plan, perhaps because surrounding districts had successfully instituted similar programs.
In March 2009, the district trustees voted to allow the condom availability program and health center staff reported that demand for the new service was high as they gave out 1,000 condoms in the first six weeks.
In these four communities, public health professionals and even district administrators and school board members made reducing teen pregnancy a priority and succeeded in making important sexual health services accessible to students. In many other communities, teen pregnancy numbers were a key piece of the argument for new sex education curricula that included some information about contraception. In both scenarios young people gained more tools to help them make decisions about their sexual health.
This trend has been a frustrating one as well, as SIECUS has noticed that the most common arguments for adding sexuality education or services now focus on reducing teen pregnancy. This focus is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it sells sex education short by focusing on problem prevention as opposed to the more positive goal of holistic sexual health. By narrowly focusing in on one behavioral goal (pregnancy prevention) these programs dismiss the other myriad issues of body image, dating, human sexual response, sexual orientation, gender identity, role, and expression that young people confront in their daily lives. Comprehensive sexuality education includes lessons on all of these topics, in addition to information about delaying sex, accessing contraception, and preventing STDs.
Secondly, arguments for teen pregnancy reduction often have the unintended effect of stigmatizing pregnant and parenting teens. In some cases, advocates have taken fear-based approaches, such as United Way of Milwaukee’s horror movie trailer PSA, “2028.” The trailer follows the story of a young woman that has sex at a party, is shunned, has to deal with an abusive father, excruciating labor, and a son who is arrested as a teenager. The trailer ends with the message “Get pregnant as a teen and the next 18 years could be the hardest of your life.” The fear and shame in these messages do not address young people with honesty and respect and do not portray an accurate picture of teen pregnancy in the United States.
In many cases, pregnant and parenting teens are not prevented from a successful life because of their pregnancy, but instead because of the much larger obstacles of poverty and the lack of quality healthcare and educational opportunities. In a recent report, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explains that beginning the process of family creation at a younger age may make much more sense to these adolescents, whose future has never held the promise of college or a career. So while gaining access to contraceptive education and services is a boon for all young people, it shouldn’t come at the expense of stigmatizing pregnant and parenting teens, and it should be accompanied by programs that support these young people in accessing the same academic and career opportunities their fellow students have.
In the 2008-2009 school year, a clear pattern of frustration emerged that led many communities to advocate for the overhaul of abstinence-only programs that they saw as inadequate or inappropriate for young people. In many cases, parents and students led the charge by circulating petitions or joining committees. They often faced school administrators dragging their feet rather than taking a proactive stance toward improving sexuality education, but a few school boards proved themselves to be exceptions to this rule.
In Volusia County, FL, a parent filed a complaint with the school board regarding Pure Energy, the abstinence-only-until-marriage program taught at Volusia schools since 2000. The parent was concerned that the program stigmatized single parents and the LGBTQ community. Pure Energy, and the organization that runs it, Resources for Women, received over $146,000 a year through 2007 from the federal government’s Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding stream, which requires its programs to teach “that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity.”
As an initial critic of the abstinence-only-until-marriage program, the parent was asked to serve on the School Health Advisory Committee along with the Pure Energy developers to decide whether eighth grade and high school students should be taught the abstinence-only-until-marriage model, or an expanded curriculum that included information on contraception, disease prevention, and sexual relationships. Also on the table was a third option that would cover these topics, but begin at kindergarten and last through 12th grade. This approach would teach kindergarten students simple hygiene issues such as washing hands, but move toward sexual health and reproductive topics at higher grade levels.
After much deliberation and over a year after the original complaint was filed, the committee recommended that sex education classes be abstinence-based, but also cover birth control and sexually transmitted disease prevention. Upon review of the committee’s recommendation, the superintendent announced that beginning in April 2009 the district would teach an “abstinence-plus” program that would begin in eighth grade and extend throughout high school.
One school board member said “I would like to see it in sixth through eighth grades, but you have to compromise a little bit.” The board member also suggested that the board may revisit the issue in the future, and perhaps expand the program to sixth and seventh grades, “once parents get used to this.”
After an ongoing battle between parents andschool officials in Pittsburgh, PA, parents are finally seeing the changes they envisioned when they began petitioning the school board for comprehensive sexuality education in the spring of 2008. Parents first approached the board asking for the district to teach more than just abstinence. The board promised to form a task force to examine the abstinence-only-until-marriage program, but when it failed to do so, two of the parents created an online petition demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The petition criticized the existing curriculum for trying to scare students from having sex and for promoting heterosexual marriage as the expected standard of behavior. The school district once again responded by making plans to review the program, but refused to promise any changes.
The district eventually assembled a team of teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders to review the program and they found, among other problems, that health teachers rarely knew what was expected of them. It ultimately recommended a new policy that would still emphasize abstinence, but also include information on contraception, sexual orientation, sexual dysfunction, sexual abuse, and gender roles.
The district eventually assembled a team of teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders to review the program and they found, among other problems, that health teachers rarely knew what was expected of them. It ultimately recommended a new policy that would still emphasize abstinence, but also include information on contraception, sexual orientation, sexual dysfunction, sexual abuse, and gender roles.
In February of 2009, Pittsburgh parents finally saw the results of their efforts, as the school board voted 8-1 to implement a more comprehensive health curriculum as recommended by the committee.
In contrast, a school board member in Collier County, FL took the lead and pushed the board to expand their existing sexuality education program to include information about contraception. The original program centered on the benefits of abstinence as the expected standard of behavior, the risk factors involved with sexual activity, and the consequences of teenage pregnancy. However, this program was seen by board members as vague and unrealistic. Though teachers were free to discuss contraception under this program, board members felt that teachers had avoided the subject since teaching it wasn’t official policy.
“I want teachers to feel more comfortable talking about sex,” said one board member, who proposed the revisions to the board in the summer of 2009. Despite some board members’ assertions that the revisions would add essential information and clarity about what could be taught, not all agreed.
Some school board members and parents strongly opposed the revision and wanted to stick to abstinence-only-until-marriage messages. Prior to voting on the matter, school board members welcomed a crowd of 70 parents and community members who debated the issue for nearly two hours. A mother of a current student said that she sees the new policy “as flying in the face of what this nation is founded on, which was God.” The board also received a letter from a group called “Concerned Citizens of Collier County” who objected to the changes because they said the proposal was not posted far enough in advance of the board meeting. In contrast, one former student spoke in favor of the new policy explaining that she never received sex education in school and instead “took it upon myself to inform myself about contraceptives…and it taught me to have more respect for my body and what to do with it.” Others argued that the new policy would “provid[e] information and creat[e] a space where kids can talk about issues and ask questions” to trusted, well-informed adults.
After being tentatively approved in late September 2009, the school board members and the community took six weeks to review the policy and the board cast a final 3–2 vote in support of the new additions in November 2009.
STUDENTS PUSH FOR MORE INFORMATION
Parents aren’t the only ones concerned about the health and sexuality education curricula taught in schools. In fact, many student groups and youth-led community groups took remarkable initiative to educate and mobilize parents, students, and lawmakers about the importance of comprehensive sexuality education. Not only did students and youth groups exhibit remarkable strength as advocates and organizers, but their efforts also seemed to be very well received and supported by their peers.
The student congress in Henrico, VA, consisting of 150 representatives from nine high schools, appealed on behalf of the town’s student body for a change in the required family life curricula in Henrico Public Schools. Currently, Henrico has an abstinence-only-until-marriage family life program for 4th through 10th grade students. The program covers topics such as parenting skills, sexually transmitted diseases, human reproduction, and stress management.
The student congress, however, felt that the program was lacking and that students’ needs were not being met. Representatives addressed the school board with the changes that they wanted to see in the existing program. Proposed changes included more information about crisis hotlines added to the school’s web page for students, information on date rape and abusive relationships, and talking points to help parents better communicate with their children about sex. “We consider this the most dire issue that’s ever been brought before the School Board,” said a senior student at Douglas Freeman High School. The student group also issued letters to local elected officials to advocate for the change. SIECUS will continue to monitor the situation.
On the other side of the country, a former public high school student in Anchorage, AK issued a petition for more comprehensive sexuality education in Anchorage public schools. Now a junior at the University of Anchorage, the student led a campaign to expand the human growth and development curriculum delivered in her alma mater. “I know how bad the sex ed was, because I sat through it too,” she said.
According to the health curriculum coordinator in the district, Anchorage students were active on this issue before. She recalled high school students standing up at public forums across the city and calling for more information a year ago.
Alaska state law allows individual districts to decide on the sexuality education programs taught in their schools. The human growth and development program in Anchorage public schools currently only serves eighth grade students and emphasizes abstinence, touching only briefly on contraception. Current students have been critical too; one junior called out bias in the program and said teachers use scare tactics and are not honest about the science. 
Together with local high school students and a University of Anchorage campus group, the student circulated a petition with the aim of collecting 5,000 signatures. Her goal is to convince lawmakers that there is genuine concern in the community about the lack of sexuality education in Anchorage. The student would like to see more evidence-based curricula and a sexuality education program that serves high school students as well.
The Anchorage superintendent has stated that she is “more than willing to have the health curriculum committee look at the issue.”
Around the country, students have used surveys of their peers to communicate to administrators and lawmakers the need for better, more comprehensive sexuality education. In Milford, PA, the Pike County Youth Coalition conducted an online survey of Delaware Valley High School students and recent graduates. The survey showed that 94 percent of respondents favored comprehensive sexuality education, and 30 percent said that more education would have delayed their decision to have sex; among female respondents, that number jumped to 52 percent. Despite these numbers, the Pennsylvania Department of Health applied for a $1.7 million federal grant for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.
A non-profit group in Albuquerque, NM, Young Women United, also conducted a two-year long sexuality education survey of Albuquerque Public School students. The survey found that 63 percent of respondents felt that more sexuality education was necessary at their school and 90 percent supported a comprehensive curriculum. A member of Young Women United commented that the survey “is definitely important because New Mexico is the second highest in the country for teen pregnancy, and has really high sexually transmitted disease rates, as well.”
This trend of students and youth activist groups standing up for their right to access information about their own bodies and sexual health has continued to grow over the past few years. Even when success isn’t always immediate, these young activists show encouraging resilience in their efforts to secure accurate information for themselves and their peers. In the process, they also succeed in raising consciousness about the issue and garner attention from press, parents, and administrators. We hope that students, parents, and community members continue to support each other, and work together as allies in the struggle for comprehensive sexuality education.
STATE LAWS INFLUENCE LOCAL DISTRICTS
In another positive trend, state laws and guidelines about sexuality education, and the state officials tasked with enforcing them, continue to coax local districts into adopting curricula that include more than just an abstinence-only-until-marriage message. Districts that came into compliance with their state’s code in the 2008–2009 school year risked outcries of usurped local control from conservative parents and community members, but, in most cases, the district moved ahead with the changes regardless. In some cases, few objections erupted, but it took a parent or an outside watchdog to bring the issue of non-compliance to the district’s attention.
Just such a story unfolded in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County, CA where a mother first became involved in advocating for her children’s school district to adopt a more comprehensive program. She was inspired to do so after seeing a report in May 2008 by the Community Action Fund of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties.
The report found that only one local school district completely complied with the state education code which calls for schools that opt to teach sex education beyond the HIV/AIDS requirement to discuss the diversity of pregnancy and STD prevention methods as well as “encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family.” According to the report all others schools “almost universally” omit information in their health education courses about pregnancy prevention, and almost half do not provide complete instruction on the transmission of STDs.
Citing this report, as well as others that showed that a majority of parents in California support comprehensive sex education, the concerned mother wrote to the school board asking for a change to more comprehensive education. Newport-Mesa schools had been using a Glencoe Health textbook that focused almost exclusively on abstinence and was not relevant for LGBTQ young people.  After receiving the letter, the board formed a committee of parents, teachers, school nurses, and district administrators dedicated to researching the issue. The parent advocate was included in the committee, and 10 months later the group was able to recommend a curriculum that was unanimously supported by the school board.
The decision was heralded by a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties. “This is a very exciting development and really encouraging that a school district is setting this example of re-evaluating their curriculum and establishing it in all of their high schools,” she said. The parent is also excited about the “huge step forward,” but is wary that the new program is only set to be implemented in high schools. Health classes in the district’s middle schools were eliminated five years ago to make room for other academic classes, and the district is still trying to determine how it will fit the new middle school program into the class schedule.
“[Middle school] is when we want them to learn about growth and development and puberty,” commented the parent, who has a son in middle school. “Even if you’ve got a great curriculum, [late in high school] is just way too late to be presenting that information for the first time,” she continued.
At the school board meeting in April 2009, the parent heard praise from the board members, who also assured her that the health curriculum committee will now be charged with exploring and ensuring the implementation of the middle school curriculum.
In Fremont, CA, it also took an outside source to find that the abstinence-only-until-marriage programming in the schools failed to meet the California state education code requirements. The curriculum fell under scrutiny after the local news station began to investigate the sex education programming in the area junior high schools. Reporters found that the program in the Fremont schools was flouting state law, which requires schools that choose to discuss sexuality education to provide comprehensive, age-appropriate, and medically accurate information.
The parent of a middle school student in neighboring Concord, CA aided reporters in its discovery of the abstinence-only programs. She had found the same organization, Await and Find, presenting an abstinence-only-until-marriage program in her son’s middle school and was successful in barring the organization from that school in 2004.
Await and Find was the recipient of a federal grant under the Community-Based Abstinence Education funding stream. As such, the program was required to follow a strict definition of “abstinence education” that clearly does not fit with California’s sexuality education law. When Fremont district officials learned of the program, they asked the Public Health Institute, a California-based non-profit that specializes in research and training, to review Await and Find’s program.
The review found that among other problems, the program intended to scare students away from sex by using exaggerated failure rates for condoms and contraception. The Fremont district director was distressed by the findings. “I think the implication is that [students and parents are] being deceived. And I don’t ever want anyone to be deceived,” he said.
In the summer of 2008, the school board began looking at other options, the FLASH curriculum chief among them. Opposition to the proposed curriculum came to a head in January 2009 at a school board meeting. About a dozen people spoke against the curriculum at the meeting suggesting that it was not age appropriate and labeling it “graphic” and “vulgar.” Many spoke in favor of the program though, including three young mothers. “I know every parent doesn’t want to believe their children are having sex...You should not shelter them. You cannot be with them all day,” said one of the young women.
After three and a half hours of comments, the board voted unanimously to adopt the new curriculum and instruction began in spring of 2009.
Parents and community members also voiced objections to changes in the Scappoose, OR sixth grade sex education program that would bring it into compliance with state law.
In November 2008, the school board held a hearing on the proposed change from the abstinence-only STARS curriculum to the more comprehensive Making a Difference curriculum. Making a Difference was chosen by sixth grade teachers from a list of programs that address the Oregon state standards. Those standards require an “abstinence-based” program that emphasizes abstinence as the only 100 percent effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy, STDs, and HIV/AIDS, as well as medical accuracy with respect to information about condoms and contraception.
At the school board meeting, five parents spoke in opposition to the new program. One speaker took issue with the fact that the curriculum defines oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, and masturbation. Others were angered that students are asked to role play as sexually active heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual students in one lesson. “Our kids deserve better than this,” said one parent. “We need to protect their innocence.”
The school superintendent stayed neutral through the debate, saying “This is not my agenda” and that it is his job to make sure the school meets state law. However, the district nurse and sexuality education specialist at the Oregon Department of Education did defend the new program. The nurse argued that the program was needed, as 25 percent of the students in eighth through 12th grade have an STD. She also asserted that “there is no direct teaching about condoms in these books,” information about condoms and contraception are only given in response to student questions. The DOE representative echoed the need for teaching about risky behaviors before eighth grade, when 16 percent report being sexually active.
Despite the support of the DOE and public health professionals in the district, the board decided to scuttle the plans for Making a Difference due to the vocal opposition from a small number of parents. Instead the district pulled together its own curriculum from health textbook supplements that still meets the standard of the state law. The district began teaching this new program in the 6th grade in spring 2009.
ABSTINENCE-ONLY GROUPS DIG IN
In a few communities, SIECUS monitored long, drawn out conflicts between state laws and abstinence-only-until-marriage supporters in local districts. The common thread in these controversies is the presence of an active, abstinence-only-until-marriage group interested in maintaining its access to public schools. In both the cases we monitored this year, these groups cultivated relationships with local school administrators and have re-branded their programs as “medically accurate” and “abstinence centered,” arguing that they can be used to supplement existing programming or as the abstinence component of a comprehensive sex education program.
One example of this occurred in Pueblo, CO. In January 2009, the YMCA and abstinence-only-until-marriage provider, WAIT (Why Am I Tempted) Training, spoke to the District 60 school board and tried to convince its members to begin using the WAIT Training program throughout the district. The YMCA had been awarded a $3 million federal grant in 2008 through the community-based abstinence education (CBAE) funding stream and was offering to present the WAIT Training program for free.
The school board president, who disclosed that she’d been lobbied by WAIT Training since her election, decided to invite the group to present to the board, but also invited other local teen pregnancy prevention groups. A representative of one of these groups, the Colorado Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention (COAPPP), pointed out that the federal program funding the YMCA requires a strict abstinence-only approach, which disqualifies the curriculum under Colorado’s law requiring the teaching of contraception. A WAIT Training spokesperson responded, saying that the abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum was still eligible to be presented as the abstinence portion of a larger comprehensive sex education program.
Overall the WAIT Training program met with mixed reactions at the meeting as the board president seemed interested in trying to figure out how to use the program within the bounds of state law, while the head of the local health department doubted the program, saying “It’s abstinence-only-until-marriage and the evidence is that doesn’t work.”
Four months later, little progress had been made. The school board president was quoted stating her belief “that we have a responsibility to educate children on how to protect themselves” and the health department head continued to argue that abstinence-only programs do not work. Still, no decisions had been made for Pueblo City Schools in District 60 and in the meantime the YMCA presented on the WAIT Training program to the school board of Pueblo County Schools in District 70. The superintendent in District 70 told reporters the board was just gathering information and when it was scheduled to make its decision in July, its choice would comply with state law.
Despite both districts’ intentions to comply with state law, neither has formally barred the YMCA’s WAIT Training program from classrooms and it remains unclear what is being taught in either district. SIECUS will continue to monitor the situation.
An abstinence-only-until-marriage group in Sonoma County, CA mounted a similar campaign to remain in schools despite California law requiring more comprehensive programming. This controversy began in 2006 when a father in Santa Rosa, CA complained about the ideological teachings of Free to Be, the abstinence-only group that was presenting in his son’s middle school. The father, incensed about the inaccuracies and biases in the curriculum, complained to the school, the school board, and eventually enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California.
Free to Be is an 18-year-old, Sonoma County-based abstinence-only-until-marriage group that until recently was associated with Catholic Charities. The group was awarded a $540,000-a-year grant for the years 2007-2012 as a part of the federal CBAE program and has presented in a number of Sonoma County schools since its inception.
The state of California, on the other hand, never applied for federal abstinence-only funding and its education code requires schools that teach sex education to make sure all instruction includes information about abstinence while “providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” This instruction must “provide information about the effectiveness and safety of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods in preventing pregnancy, including, but not limited to, emergency contraception” and must be appropriate for “all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and pupils with disabilities.”
Because of this discrepancy between state education code and what was being taught by Free to Be, the father’s complaint resulted in the Sonoma County Office of Education emailing all county superintendents and principals instructing them that Free to Be was not allowed in classrooms. The ACLU followed this email with a letter to all districts asking them to confirm that they would not let Free to Be present to students during the 2009–2010 school year.
In response, the ACLU and state Department of Education (DOE) were met with resistance from Free to Be and a handful of district administrators. Free to Be maintains that their program is medically accurate and is perfectly legal as the abstinence component of the comprehensive program required by California education code. They have received support from a few districts, including the superintendent of West Sonoma County Schools who argued that “It should remain the local schools’, the local community’s decision what happens in the local classrooms.” West Sonoma, along with a few other districts and Free to Be have also consulted lawyers in hopes of challenging the state’s determination about the group.
The response to the state DOE and the ACLU was not entirely antagonistic though. The ACLU reports that a number of districts have confirmed that they will not invite Free to Be into their classrooms, and others have ratified local policies supporting comprehensive sex education.
For its part, the California DOE has steadfastly maintained that it is illegal for Free to Be to teach in public schools. The DOE expert in charge of enforcement explained that the CBAE program that funds Free to Be requires the organization to teach medically unfounded opinion, such as the idea that sex outside of marriage will “likely have harmful psychological and physical effects.” A review of Free to Be’s curriculum by the Public Health Institute in November 2009 supported the state’s claim. Reviewers found medical inaccuracies related to condom effectiveness and STDs and concluded the program was inappropriate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. Students have also complained that the program is “causing problems because kids are being confused about what really is the truth and what really is fact.”
Despite the mounting evidence stacked against them, it is still unclear whether Free to Be has been effectively removed from all of the nearly 40 school districts in Sonoma County.
As the cases in Pueblo, CO and Sonoma County, CA illustrate, trouble can erupt when an abstinence-only group inserts itself into the struggle between a local school district and state department of education. These controversies also reveal that states don’t usually have the resources for surveillance or enforcement of their education codes, and primarily get involved when presented with a blatant violation. Still, even with limited resources, many state departments of education have shown themselves to be allies of sex education advocates.
THE FIGHT’S NOT OVER;
SEXUALITY EDUCATION STILL FACES OBJECTIONS
This year has seen significant changes in federal funding and support for sex education as public opinion continues its shift in favor of more comprehensive programming. Still, in the face of change, there is opposition. Some opponents of comprehensive sex education are taking an ideological stance, arguing from a place of wanting to decide what is right or wrong for students. Others are reacting to their own discomfort around talking about sexuality and using that to limit what students learn. As comprehensive sexuality education efforts move forward and new programs are implemented in schools, it is important to not only educate students, but to provide additional education and training for parents and teachers who are facing their own discomfort around talking about sexuality, as well as finding a balance for those who stand ideologically opposed.
One example of ideological opposition to more comprehensive programming occurred early this school year in Cody, WY. The sexuality education curriculum at Cody High School (CHS) went under the microscope after members of Cody Right to Life submitted a petition to the school board asking to ban a local family planning group (and others) from providing guest speakers to the school.
The school board accepted the petition, which stated that health classes should be “restricted to factual information about the reproductive system and abstinence education,” and quickly voted 4–3 to suspend Northwest Wyoming Family Planning (NWFP) from teaching its one-day lesson in the health classes. The board resolution also mandated that students be segregated by gender for the lesson about contraception and STDs and that it be taught by a health teacher or school nurse. In addition, the board voted to create a task force that would include representatives from NWFP, Cody Right to Life, parents, teachers, a school nurse, and a board member that would review the high school’s entire health class and come back with recommendations.
Members of Cody Right to Life, who argued that NWFP did not focus enough on abstinence, “negative outcomes” of sexual activity, and the risks and side effects of contraceptives, were satisfied with the board’s decision. A city council member also said she was pleased with the board because of her concern that NWFP was not covering the “damaging emotional consequences that come with underage sex.”
The Cody community was divided over the issue and many teachers, students, and parents defended NWFP and the safer sex lesson at a subsequent board meeting. One CHS health teacher called the decision to separate the students by gender a “step backward” and said that “it goes against everything we’ve been striving to do in education.” He was joined by a group of 70 other area teachers who were critical of the change. A student also told board members that she thought their decision was more about “personal views instead of what’s best for the students.” The NWFP representative at the meeting said that while they do stress the importance of abstinence, they take a neutral stance and provide “students with options,” and tools to make informed decisions.
At the same board meeting, Concerned Citizens for the Health and Safety of Cody Students, a group which formed in response to the initial decision to suspend the program, presented a petition to reverse the board’s decision and to “allow school administrators to determine necessary curriculum changes, which should be in compliance with state standards.” The school board accepted the petition and got to work on appointing a taskforce to review the curriculum.
In spite of the continued division over the issue, more than one year following the initial decision to bar guest speakers from specific community agencies, including NWFP, the district’s board clarified that it will not move to reconsider its decision anytime in the near future.
A similar case of ideological opposition occurred in McMinnville, OR this spring when a parent who is also the head of a local activist group, Conservative Friends of Yamhill County (CFYC), voiced his objection to the “frank sexual nature” of the district’s new sexuality education curriculum for fourth and fifth grade students.
Last fall, in compliance with a 2007 Oregon law mandating that K–12 schools teach students about human sexuality and HIV prevention, the McMinnville School District incorporated material from a program called The Great Body Shop into its elementary curriculum. The Great Body Shop, which is on the Oregon Department of Education’s list of recommended programs, is designed to provide children with age-appropriate information about health, nutrition, sexuality, and disease prevention.
In criticizing the HIV content of The Great Body Shop,the father and leader of the CFYC said that the multiple references to the act of sex in discussing STD risk reduction is “really, really objectionable for 9 and 10 year olds.” He opposed phrases in the lessons such as “people who have sex with many partners are at risk of getting HIV,” and “of course, you are much too young to have sex.” The district’s director of assessment and federal programs responded by saying that the decision to include The Great Body Shop into the human development curriculum was based on the program’s solid research base and devotion to bringing parents and children together through knowledge about health.
The parent and CFYC leader also complained that the school district had failed to adequately comply with district and state law, which states that parents must be given fair advance warning and the opportunity to “opt out” their child from learning what they consider inappropriate material. He claims that “many parents with whom he’s talked haven’t seen letters about the lessons…and that letters he has seen mention HIV, but don’t note the use of terms like ‘sex’ or ‘multiple partners.’”
The district’s director of assessment and federal programs acknowledged that, while some initial letters sent from schools about the program had not included information about the HIV discussion, “all subsequent letters do.” He stated, “I think we’ve covered our bases with parents and given opportunities to opt out or ask questions.” In addition he mentioned that the process for approving the program was a “lengthy one,” involving parents, PTA leaders, and district officials. After taking the objection from the conservative activist parent into consideration, the district decided to continue the program.
Opposition to curriculum changes in Reading, PA seemed to be based more on discomfort with certain topics, rather than wholesale ideological opposition to sexuality education. Teachers in the Reading schools claimed that the content of the curriculum which they were scheduled to teach this spring was “graphic” and made them feel uncomfortable.
One argument against the curriculum was presented by the Teachers Union President who stated that the curriculum was “pornographic,” noting one element of the program, which teaches how to make condoms pleasurable and fun. Standing firm with their decision to override some of the teachers’ personal discomfort with the subject matter, members of the School Board argued that the program is “not promoting sex. It’s promoting safety.”
Officials responded saying that those who felt uncomfortable teaching the program could decline to participate, and parents can choose to exclude their children. Officials also made a point to clarify that, despite the protests from teachers and parents, the program would still be implemented.
As teachers questioned curriculum changes, school districts around the nation also presented opposition to comprehensive programming this school year. The Howell, MI Board of Education voted to suspend the district’s Baby Think It Over program until the district could revisit and clarify its sex education guidelines. The decision came after a guest speaker from Planned Parenthood broached the subject of oral sex in response to a student’s question about the purpose of a cherry-flavored condom. The speaker was leading a discussion about contraception with a freshmen class.
A 2003 school board policy to implement programs that include contraceptive information, allowed for the Baby Think It Over program to be presented in child development and psychology classes. Guest speakers from Planned Parenthood were approved to lead the classes and talk about abstinence and contraception, however, the policy did not specify what types of contraception could be mentioned, how to respond to students’ questions, or whether or not oral sex could be discussed. The board’s vice president argued that “cherry-flavored condoms and oral sex are not approved [topics].”
After the board voted to suspend the program, the superintendent requested that the board’s Sex Education Advisory Council more explicitly define what topics could be covered in the curriculum so that teachers, guest speakers, and parents know precisely what will be discussed. In addition, the board’s vice president asked her fellow board members to review the makeup of the district’s Advisory Council membership to ensure that half of the members are parents who have children in the district and that it includes students, educators, local clergy, and community health professionals?all of which are required by state law.
Following the suspension of the program, the advisory council worked to draft a revised handbook for the 2009-2010 school year, that would give guidelines for answering students’ questions, as well as information detailing the content of the curriculum in order to better inform parents.
A growing number of school districts across the nation are moved toward more comprehensive sexuality education this past year. Change, however, does not come easy. Even with the progress that school districts have made with their sexuality education programming, there is still more work to be done to ensure the sexual health and safety of students. As programming makes its shift to guide students with more comprehensive information, educators, parents, and community members who stand ideologically opposed to these changes need encouragement to set aside personal belief in order to honor the need of students as individuals. In addition, educators, parents, and community members need support as they struggle to face their discomfort around talking about sex and sexuality with young people. While it is important for educators and parents to face their apprehensions, under no circumstance should an adults’ personal discomfort addressing sexuality topics become a justification for denying students comprehensive sexuality education.
SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND GENDER EXPRESSION
STILL CONTROVERSIAL IN MANY PLACES
This school year, as in years past, students continued to play a major role in advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students, as sexual orientation and gender identity remain a major target of controversy in schools across the nation. Many local school districts continue to fail to address the needs and protect the rights of all students and student advocates are fighting back, with a great deal of success in spite of slow progress. We saw students advocating for policies to ensure respect, rights to free speech, and the right to form Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) student clubs. We continue to see marginalized students standing up to hold their schools accountable for providing a safe environment for their LGBTQ students.
This national trend of explosive controversies over LGBTQ issues is typified by what took place in Hayward, CA. An activity during Ally Week, a national campaign to encourage people to challenge anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools, drew fire from conservative parents.
Students involved with the Gay Straight Alliance Club at Faith Ringgold Arts and Science Middle School were passing out pledge cards encouraging their peers to support a safer environment for students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. The pledge cards were designed for middle school and high school students by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and asked students to promise to “not use anti-LGBT language or slurs, intervene when I feel I can in situations where others are using anti-LGBT language or harassing other students, and actively support safer schools efforts.” According to the school district, the cards were a part of the school’s participation in Ally Week.
The club’s faculty advisor accidently passed some of the pledge cards to the school’s kindergarten teacher who mistakenly distributed them to her class. The kindergarten teacher’s mistake caused a storm of debate among parents and members of the school district.
A number of parents raised concerns about the cards after they were given to the kindergarteners, drawing connections to the Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which at the time had yet to be voted on. They accused the school of “promoting gay and lesbian ideals.” Others complained that their children were too young to be exposed to the topics and called the distribution of the pledge cards a “psychological crime.” State-wide, and nationally, Proposition 8 supporters used the controversy to convince voters that allowing same-sex couples to marry would require schools to teach about same-sex relationships.
California’s elected school chief responded to those erroneous allegations by saying that what happened in Hayward had nothing to do with Proposition 8: “Schools are already required to teach tolerance of gays and lesbians under the state’s comprehensive anti-bullying law and the ballot measure won’t change that.”
In response to the mistaken distribution of the pledge cards to elementary school students, school officials met with parents to address their concerns and conducted an investigation into whether materials used in relation to Ally Week were suitable for all grade levels. The school’s statement explained that “The Faith Ringgold teacher planned to teach students how to become an ally, and [about] conflict mediation. We apologize for any misunderstandings, however, we support curriculum that teaches the diversity of our society and complies with all state laws.”
In regards to whether the pledge cards would be used again next year, the district spokesperson replied “it’s safe to say the pledge cards will not be used for kindergartners and any other elementary students.”
Students in Chillicothe, OH ran a campaign against homophobic behavior in their school that met with some opposition. Members of the Gay Straight Alliance at Chillicothe High School focused their efforts on getting their fellow students to stop using the phrase “that’s so gay.” With full support from the school’s principal, student advocates displayed a selection of posters and broadcasted public service announcements that were designed as a part of GLSEN’s “Think Before You Speak” campaign. One of the posters read, “That’s so cheerleader who like can’t like say smart stuff. Think that’s mean? How do you think ‘that’s so gay’ sounds? Hurtful. So, knock it off.”
Students at the school displayed mixed reactions toward the printed materials, some of which were torn from the walls in protest. The GSA’s faculty advisor defended the posters saying, “It is a freedom of speech piece. It’s in the common hall. There’s certainly been reaction and at least a lot of conversation about it.” A member of the GSA responded that, “We’re not trying to offend,” he said, “we’re trying to make a point.” He also observed that the poster campaign did seem to be changing some student’s behaviors. “It’s kind of funny, because students will say, ‘That’s so’ and they stop...At first we started hearing it more, but now people are starting to say something more original, and that’s our goal,” he said.
In Alamance-Burlington, NC the Board of Education made a change to their anti-bullying policy after much debate regarding the language of the policy. Initially, some board members found it troubling that sexual orientation was included as part of the list of “differentiating characteristics” that may motivate bullying and harassment in schools. The school board considered changing the language of the policy to encourage students and staff to “be sensitive to all students, for whatever reason they’re being bullied,” without listing which specific types of bullying would not be tolerated.
Nearly one year following the initial debate, the final policy read with much more clarity stating that bullying and harassment “includes, but is not limited to, acts reasonably perceived as being motivated by any actual or perceived differentiating characteristics, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, developmental or sensory disability, or by association with a person who has or is perceived to have one or more of these characteristics.”
Following the change in policy, the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education was informed by an attorney that, due to a recent state law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly, the anti-bullying policy could violate free speech. The board held their ground and responded by carefully reviewing the new policy, and placing an emphasis on the importance of exercising thoughtful discernment between free speech and harassment. The policy remains in place.
In some districts, student action that is not consistent with administrators’ beliefs about traditional gender roles and expression brings up anger and confusion, and sometimes results in a violation of students’ rights. An example of this occurred in Lebanon, IN where a female student was told by her principal that she could not wear a tuxedo to her high school prom. The student took quick action to defend her rights, and filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana. In an effort to appease the student, the principal suggested that she wear a pants suit instead of a tuxedo, claiming that, “while the school’s dress code does not contain gender-based requirements, there is a special dress code for prom that requires female students to wear a formal dress.”
The lawsuit alleged that the prom attire policy intentionally discriminated against students based on gender, violating federal law as well as students’ free speech rights and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. Nearly one month before the prom, the student won the lawsuit. According to the superintendent, formal attire is still required at the prom, but the requirements are no longer “gender-based.” Pleased with the court’s decision, the female student attended her high school prom in a tuxedo.
In a similar story, the school board of Clovis, NM voted to pass a new publications code for the high school yearbook in response to community members’ complaints about a lesbian couple pictured in the previous year’s yearbook.
The objections primarily came from the Christian Citizenship Team, a local, community-based group. One member said that “We don’t think that it reflects anywhere close to the attitudes and morals of this community.” The state’s former lieutenant governor, who also lives in the area, was another especially vocal dissenter, telling the Clovis News Journal “if this is indeed the direction that the school system is going to take and continue to promote, then don’t look to me for any more donations.”
The photograph in question was displayed in the “Relationships” segment of the yearbook and was shown alongside nine photographs of heterosexual couples. “We just wanted to show that there is diversity. There are gay and lesbian students in this school and they have a right to be in the yearbook, just as much as anybody else does,” said the student yearbook editor.
The new code allows principals the authority to review students’ work before the yearbook is published. Under this new code, students will have the option to appeal a principal’s decision and the school board will have the final say in what is published.
GSAs SUPPORTED BY LAW, BUT STILL CONTEND WITH OPPOSITION
Over the past couple of years, with some schools making efforts towards adopting policies to ensure the respect, safety, and rights of all students, many students continued to be met with resistance from their schools surrounding requests to create a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). In Irmo, SC for example, the principal of Irmo High School took the drastic step of announcing his resignation in protest of the formation of a GSA at the school. In a letter to school officials, the principal claimed that the GSA conflicted with his “professional beliefs and religious convictions.” The principal’s letter was tendered just days after nearby Greenville, SC mourned the one-year anniversary of the death of a former student thought to have been the result of a LGBTQ motivated hate-crime.
The principal’s announcement and initial letter drew national attention, causing uproar among students, community members, and national gay rights organizations. South Carolina Equality’s (SCE) executive director explained, “Every day that this Principal remains at Irmo High, students will continue to live in fear for their safety. These unsafe and dangerous conditions for gay students are intolerable.”
In spite of the principal’s action, the school remained committed to their policy allowing the formation of a GSA. The principal then submitted another letter to school board officials “indicating his desire to remain at Irmo High School.” The school board agreed to let the principal stay but remained firm about allowing the GSA to continue to meet as a club.
Concerned parents, students, community members, and organizations voiced strong opinion toward the principal’s actions, causing a divide among the school community. A student who agreed with the principal’s stance stated, “I don’t think school is the appropriate place to have a gay club,” an opinion shared by some community members and parents as well. Representing another take on the issue, the executive director of Faith in America, a gay-rights group, expressed opposition to the principal’s decision: “We truly believe it is unfortunate that this principal cannot see the immense harm that is caused when a social climate of rejection, condemnation and violence is justified with misguided religious belief.”
Not long after requesting to stay at the school however, the principal changed his mind one last time and committed to his retirement as of the 2009-10 school year. A former district administrator now serves as Irmo High School’s principal, who according to the district’s superintendent, has a “strong and proven reputation for positive communications with students.”
While LGBTQ students and their allies this year often won the right to meet as a club, they still fought to break down barriers and restrictions. Some school districts challenged the name, “Gay Straight Alliance,” claiming that the club name violates school board policy.
One example of this occurred in Nassau County, FL where student advocates fought for the right to meet as a “Gay Straight Alliance” after a lawyer for the Nassau County School Board said the group’s name was against school policy.
The two openly gay Yulee High students, described having been physically threatened, called derogatory names, had food thrown at them, and been spit on in school. Their goals for the GSA were to address the harassment they face and to work toward creating a safe environment in their school. When the club was shut down after its first meeting, a letter released from the district’s superintendent explained, “We were willing to let the proposed GSA meet on the condition that the name of the club was changed to prevent bullying and discrimination. A club name highlighting specific sexual orientations will not be permitted as it would violate school board policy.” The students maintained that renaming the club would defeat their purpose of working towards awareness and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
When the students hit this stumbling block they contacted the ACLU, which promptly sent a letter to the school board saying that it would take legal action if the board did not grant permission for the club. The school board responded by changing requirements for all existing and newly proposed extra-curricular clubs to include a mandatory charter or constitution and parental consent for participation. Then, when the controversy became more heated, the school district temporarily halted all activities by school clubs. The ACLU attorney felt that “The new policy was passed in order to thwart the GSA and the moratorium on extracurricular activities likewise was passed to keep the GSA off campus.”
In February, the students, in conjunction with the ACLU, decided to file a lawsuit against the school for violation of the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act, which mandates that districts provide the same access to resources for all student groups. One of the student plaintiffs stated “The school is preventing us from talking about anti-gay bias, harassment, and violence and working together to promote tolerance, understanding and acceptance of one another, regardless of sexual orientation. That’s just unfair.”
In court, the school district argued that referencing sexual orientation in the club’s name was a violation of the schools abstinence-only-until-marriage policy. The judge rejected that argument and issued a preliminary injunction ordering the school board to allow the club to meet without changing its name until a final decision is made. The judge concluded that the school district’s argument “strains logic.” The school board has not decided whether it will continue with the case, but the students are already planning the club’s next meeting.
Over the past 10 years, student advocates have made consistent progress thanks to their initiative and resolve in not backing down from the fight for respect. LGBTQ students and their allies have made great strides in our nation’s schools, but many districts, even those who have made policy changes or accepted GSAs, still have a long way to go in making their schools safe and respectful spaces for young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
PARENTS AND SCHOOLS STILL ATTEMPTING TO CENSOR MATERIALS
The 2008—2009 school year once again provided numerous examples of attempts to censor materials because of sexuality-related content or themes.
In Ramona, CA, a sixth grade student faced a violation of her rights this school year when she was called to the principal’s office and told that she could not present her independent research project on Harvey Milk because it invoked the school’s policy on sex education and would require parental consent.  In response to the attempted censorship, the student at Mt. Woodson Elementary School stood up for her free speech rights and sought assistance from the ACLU.
After receiving a letter from the ACLU informing the district of its violation of the student’s rights the district admitted to wrongly citing a school policy on sex education, and improperly requiring the student’s classmates to get parental consent to view her presentation outside of class, during a lunch recess. The Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties commented on the schools reaction saying, “schools must understand that talking about someone who happens to be gay is no more sexual in nature than talking about a person who happens to be heterosexual,” In the end, school officials promised not to engage in allegedly unconstitutional restriction of similar free speech in the future, wrote a written letter of apology to the student, and allowed her to give her presentation to all the members of the independent research project class. At the request of the ACLU, the school also agreed to bring its “Family Life/Sex Education” policy into compliance with California state law and recognized that the mention or acknowledgement of a person’s sexual orientation is not ample reason to invoke the statutes and policies on sex education.
The ACLU Legal Director added that, “censoring Natalie’s presentation violated the First Amendment and the California Education Code,” and were pleased she was “finally [able] to give her presentation on a historical figure who was such a fierce advocate for the rights of not just LGBT Californians but of all people.” The young student was proud to present her report to her class, and explained that, “Harvey Milk always stood up for his beliefs and what was right, so I felt like I should do the same thing when my school told me they wouldn’t let me do my presentation.”
2008–09 saw yet another challenge to And Tango Makes Three, an illustrated children’s book that has become one of the most challenged books in recent years. The book is based on a true story about two male penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo that raised a baby chick together. Two parents in Ankeny, IA spearheaded a months-long campaign to remove the book from school libraries or restrict its availability to students. The couple first took their complaint to the middle school, which decided to keep the book on its library shelves. They then appealed to the school board, who met numerous times to debate the issue. The couple also wrote a letter to a local newspaper stating “I am disgusted the authors think elementary-age children are ready for such a mature subject... This book pushes the debate of a diverse, destructive and risky lifestyle, trying to pass it off as warm, fuzzy and normal through cute little penguins.”
After both the school superintendent and the school board’s attorney recommended that the book remain on the shelves, the board voted to keep the book with unrestricted access to students.
The Kite Runner, about a boy growing up in Afghanistan, was removed from a sophomore advanced placement English class in Champaign, IL after a parent objected to her daughter being assigned the book. When the school board met to address the issue, many members felt that the scene in which a young boy is raped by a group of bullies was too explicit and was inappropriate for sophomore students.
“I don’t want my children to experience rape, and this book does a wonderful, graphic job of experiencing rape,” said one parent who attended the meeting. The teacher who assigned the book said that she has found that her students are “able to deal with it very maturely. It’s a wonderful, contemporary book. It does open up another world to them about another country that’s very important in their lives right now.” Despite her appeal, the board voted 5–2 to remove the book from the curriculum.
The Kite Runner was also one of many books challenged at a school board meeting in Morgantown, NC this fall. While the board voted to keep the book in the high school honors English curriculum, the issue was brought up at yet another board meeting a few months later. “Why wasn’t I notified about the nature of this reading?” demanded a parent who claimed that excerpts of the book were too vulgar even to be read aloud at the board meeting.
At the same meeting, another parent took issue with The Color Purple, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker. The parent said she was appalled that such themes as homosexuality, rape, and incest would be considered required reading, and that “such literature will warp the morals of our children.”
Other books challenged at the meeting were Beloved and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. After hearing parent comments, the board concluded that the books would remain but that school officials will develop a policy to notify parents about required reading, especially regarding books of a sensitive or controversial nature.
Due to parental concerns voiced early in the school year, the school board in Coeur D’Alene, ID found itself in the position of having to review all books in the district’s middle and high school literature classes. The process took months to resolve. While the board comfortably approved the majority of books, a handful were the subject of contentious debate. One such book was Aldous Huxley’s classic A Brave New World, which was opposed not only by a small minority of parents, but by a few board members as well. A board member who voted to remove the book, which was required reading for high school seniors, was concerned about descriptions of promiscuous sex and naked bodies throughout the book. He also argued that it “wasn’t that well written.” One parent agreed, and expressed concern about the book’s use of profanity and sexually explicit situations.
The board was initially split 2–2 over whether to keep the book on the required reading list. When the issue was up for a vote again at the following board meeting, the members unanimously voted to keep the book on the required reading list. One member who reversed his vote, explained that after speaking with teachers and learning how they used the book in class, he was ultimately convinced of its value. “I did my homework,” he said.
Other books that were up for review were Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Snow Falling on Cedars, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The board voted to keep these books in the school curriculum as well. “It’s a good day for the district,” said a Couer D’Alene English teacher.
It is encouraging that despite protests, the majority of books challenged in 2008–2009 have remained on the shelves or in school curricula. However, it is unfortunate that many parents still feel threatened by themes of sex, sexual violence, or sexual orientation. Even more disconcerting is that some parents actively work towards removing sexuality related content from schools on the basis that young people should be “protected” from these topics. Though an effort to remove content from schools may perhaps appear well intentioned, it seems ultimately misguided in its premise that knowledge is harmful to young people.
SIECUS’ position as a national organization provides us an insightful view of how national electoral and policy changes are impacting the local controversies we see. However, monitoring individual local stories reminds us that old fights are not over yet and that different parts of the country move at different speeds.
It’s clear that the support of a popular candidate, and now president, has emboldened comprehensive sexuality advocates to continue challenging abstinence-until-only-marriage programs. These supporters have also been willing to call-out school districts that are not in compliance with their state sex education laws.
National events—from Bristol Palin’s pregnancy to the uptick in teen birth numbers—have also influenced the way teen pregnancy has been portrayed in conversations about sex education. And it was the Obama administration that chose to couch its budget request for sex education funding in the language of adolescent pregnancy prevention. The panic over teen pregnancy that this program can be seen as responding to seemed to motivate many districts to include more information about contraception or even make it available through a school-based health center. However, the fear-based approaches to this issue have also stigmatized pregnant and parenting teens and distorted the true reality of teen pregnancy in this country.
In other aspects of sex education, it seems many districts were not swayed by national trends. Despite the building strength and exposure of LGBTQ advocates, LGBTQ youth had to agitate for basic respect and rights. Similarly, many communities had to contend with a vocal, conservative minority that attempted to remove and censor curricula and books that discussed sex or sexuality. In a few situations, abstinence-only organizations taught us that they are not willing to surrender their access to schools without a fight.
There were many lessons to take away from the 2008–09 school year and we plan on putting them to good use as we support advocates across the country in their continued push for comprehensive sexuality education.
 Diane Turbyfill, “Abstinence vs. sex ed in battle to fight teen pregnancy,” Gaston Gazette, 6 March 2009, accessed 13 March 2008, <www.gastongazette.com/news/gaston_31371___article.html/bridger_sex.html>.
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 Matt Dunn, “Health Official: Cumberland Regional High School Teen Pregnancies Underestimated,” 30 April 2009, accessed 28 May 2009, <www.nj.com/south/index.ssf/2009/04/health_official_cumberland_reg.html>.
 Ibid; Dunn, “Cumberland Regional School Board Considering Comprehensive Health Care on School Grounds.”
 Dunn, “Health Official: Cumberland Regional High School Teen Pregnancies Underestimated.”
 Matt Dunn, “Cumberland Regional Officials to Talk Teen Pregnancy,” The News of Cumberland County, 6 May 2009, accessed 28 May, <www.nj.com/south/index.ssf/2009/05/cumberland_regional_officials.html>.
 Matt Dunn, “Zirkle says Cumberland Regional High School now has a nurse practitioner,” The News of Cumberland County, 28 September 2009, accessed 2 October 2009, <www.nj.com/cumberland/index.ssf/2009/09/zirkle_says_cumberland_regiona.html>.
 Phone interview with Daly City Youth Health Center Staff, 4 March 2010.
 Tracy Clark-Flory, “The Horror or Teen Motherhood,” Salon Broadsheet, 27 January 2010, accessed 9 March 2010, <www.salon.com/news/abstinence/index.html?story=/mwt/broadsheet/feature/2010/01/27/2028_abstinence_movie>.
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 See SIECUS State Profiles for more information on California law, <www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1106#A1>.
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 For more information see SIECUS’ California State Profile at: http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1106#A1
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