Some CUSD parents alarmed by state law changes to sex ed

Concern among some parents in the Claremont Unified School District has recently cropped up over an age-old controversy—sex ed.

For many years, fifth and sixth grade students attending Claremont public schools have taken part in “family life,” a science supplement where they are introduced to basic concepts about sexual reproduction and their maturing bodies.

With a state law enacted January 1, 2016—the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA)—legislators set a framework for how lessons should be taught to provide more “comprehensive sex health ed.”

The state phased out “HIV-prevention education,” replacing it with a model that must be taught in a mixed-gender environment and be “age-appropriate for all races, genders, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, special education and English learners.”

Most importantly, according to Tonya Moore from the Los Angeles County Department of Education, the curriculum may not reflect or promote bias and must include medically-accurate information.

An online parent group, Informed Parents and Caregivers of Claremont Students (IPACCS), elicited a variety of comments about the changes—both in support and against, true and untrue.

“I don’t need my sixth grader being taught that anal sex is a way to avoid getting pregnant,” wrote one parent. “And, yes, that did happen in Upland this year. So we need to know what they plan to teach.”

Another parent remarked, “No 10-year-old needs to know about certain things that even make me blush! The first time most of these kids will hear words like ‘period’ should be able to process it without an audience.”

One parent countered, “If your kid, of any gender, is learning about periods for the first time in that classroom, then they need to be in there.”

A recent email to the superintendent from a distraught parent resulted in the school district scheduling a parent information night last Thursday. Ms. Moore, in her presentation to a group of about 20 CUSD parents and staff at the Kirkendall Center, outlined the specific requirements of CHYA [pronounced chee-ah].

“The [state-mandated high school] lessons must recognize that people have different sexual orientations and include examples,” she explained.

But for fifth and sixth graders, she said, the curriculum is much more general and intends to promote communication.

For example, a lesson on relationships for fifth and sixth graders would not include discussion about “sex refusal,” like it would for high schoolers. Instead, upper elementary kids are introduced to concepts about friendships and setting boundaries, asking them things like, “Are you okay with someone hugging you?”

Sexual positions, Ms. Moore emphasized, are not discussed with fifth and sixth graders.

It is state mandated that California public school students receive sex education once in middle school and again in high school. And although not mandatory for fifth and sixth graders, it is preferred they are taught the basics, which serve as a foundation for more comprehensive education in junior high.

CUSD didn’t offer family life in upper elementary last year (now called “puberty education”), because the amended directives in the state Ed Code emerging from CHYA resulted in an outdated curriculum.

But the state doesn’t administer a prescribed curriculum, so in early fall, the CUSD superintendent’s office contacted elementary school principals to help identify parents, teachers and staff interested in helping out—the result was a 30-person committee with members representing all seven elementary school sites.

At its third meeting last Thursday, the committee was set to review two possible curricula for fifth and sixth graders—Health Connected’s “Puberty Talk” and “Upper Elementary Sexual Health,” developed by Positive Prevention Plus.

“Puberty Talk” consists of fives sessions, including “Introduction to Puberty,” where instructors help kids recognize differences in growth and development, including gender roles, and try to explain how culture and media influence perceptions about body image. 

In session two, instructors offer an overview of sexual and reproductive anatomy through a lesson called, “What’s Going on Down There?”

In sessions three through five, students delve into personal hygiene, hereditary influences, emotions and behaviors affected by puberty, and explore how friendship and affection can be expressed in different ways.

CHYA stipulates that puberty education be gender-inclusive, meaning that boys and girls will be taught in the same class at the same time. This also came up on the Facebook group IPACCS.

One parent remarked, “My biggest concern is boys and girls in fifth grade being taught in the same class. If the content is appropriate and about physical stuff the kids will go through during puberty…whether you associate male or female doesn’t matter…girls have periods and boys have whatever they have.”

A parent replied, “Why shouldn’t boys understand what happens to girls’ bodies and vice versa? They should absolutely all be taught together. It’s science. They should understand the physiology of puberty for everyone.”

As CUSD has previously offered with family life, students can submit anonymous questions in writing to their teacher, who then uses their judgment and expertise to best answer to the entire class.

The goal Thursday night was for the committee to review the curricula, however, Ms. Moore spent most of the evening answering questions from visiting parents and was unable to complete her presentation.

The 10 or 12 parents at the meeting were apprehensive about terms like “medically-accurate” and “mixed-gender environments.” Several stated they found the descriptors vague, while others had misgivings about lessons relating to transgender identity issues and homosexuality.

“What exactly does ‘medically-accurate’ mean?” one father asked.

In response, Ms. Moore briefly highlighted an early lesson about chromosomes—XX and XY—and how students will be taught the human sex-determination system from a biological perspective.

The school district is in the process of ordering copies of the two potential programs, Jim Elsasser, superintendent of CUSD, explained. Once they are received, the committee will schedule another meeting to go over materials and offer its suggestions.

After that, all fifth and sixth grade teachers in the district will hear a presentation and provide input, working with administrators to make the final determination on how to move forward.

Once a program is selected, CUSD will schedule another parent information night where caregivers can come preview the adopted curriculum. If, after review, a parent still feels uncomfortable with their child taking part in any or all of the lessons, they can opt out and the child will suffer no repercussions.

“There is a minimum 14-day notice period to parents,” Mr. Elsasser said. “Parents can submit in writing a request for their student to opt out of any or all of the program.”

CUSD is early in the process, he said, so there is no timeline available as to when puberty education will start again.

“Once we adopt the curriculum, we still have to train our staff to teach it,” Mr. Elsasser said.

Ms. Moore stresses that no matter which curriculum is ultimately decided upon, lessons must be 1) age-appropriate and 2) designed around themes of empathy and respect. Comprehensive puberty education, she said, plays an integral role in social development and family engagement.

“These [upper-elementary] lessons provide an opportunity for families to start conversations based on their own values,” she said. “And every lesson has an emphasis on building communication skills and include a parent-child piece.”

—Kathryn Dunn


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