California Schools Scrambling to Comply with New Sex Ed Laws

California middle and high schools have been required to teach students about HIV/AIDS prevention since 1992. What has been optional is comprehensive sexual health education. Photo: Lynn Grabner
California middle and high schools have been required to teach students about HIV/AIDS prevention since 1992. What has been optional is comprehensive sexual health education. Photo: Lynn Graebner

Many middle and high schools across the state, plagued with cases of sexual harassment, assault and even sex trafficking on campus, are embracing two new laws making sex education mandatory for the first time in California.

Schools are welcoming the new laws as they wrestle with how to keep students safe and prevent dangerous situations that have led to investigations and legal action. The federal Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating Berkeley Unified School District after a parent filed a complaint in December of 2014 charging the district with not adequately responding to sexual harassment on campus.

The complaint stemmed from incidents such as male students creating an Instagram page with degrading photos and remarks about female students. Female students also testified at the Berkeley school board meeting in 2014 about being groped and sexually harassed at school and not getting support from school administration. Students have formed a group called BHS (Berkeley High School) Stop Harassing.

“It really kicked us into high gear,” said Susan Craig, director of student services and interim Title IX coordinator for the district. “We want to be ahead of the curve in terms of sexual harassment.” Berkeley High is educating students and staff about how to recognize and report sexual harassment and is making the reporting process less intimidating. And the district is putting funding into a pilot of the school’s revised Social Living course beefing up the sex education portion to meet requirements of the new California Healthy Youth Act.

That law took effect in January and requires schools to cover an extensive list of topics with 7th to 12th graders. In addition to human development and HIV/AIDS prevention, students will learn about sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, negotiation and refusal skills to avoid coercion into sexual activity and sex trafficking. Schools must also address different sexual orientations, contraception, abortion and adoption options.

That’s a far cry from what some school districts are currently offering.

California middle and high schools have been required to teach students about HIV/AIDS prevention since 1992. What has been optional is comprehensive sexual health education.

And that’s putting districts at risk for lawsuits. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics sued and won a case against Clovis Unified School District for failing to provide information on how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and for teaching abstinence as the only method for preventing pregnancy. Curriculum was also biased against gay and lesbian students. Cases like this have put districts on alert.

“That’s why districts are worried, there’s precedence,” said Timothy Kordic, HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit Project Advisor for the Los Angeles County School District, which faces its own challenges.

Los Angeles has been identified as one of 13 cities with the highest child sex trafficking activity in the nation, Kordic said. Sex traffickers target low income and foster care kids as well as LGBT and special needs youth.

“We have the population,” Kordic said. Children as young as 11 or 12 are being trafficked, some of them by their boyfriends, he said. So the district will be expanding its curriculum on sexual harassment and adding information about sex trafficking.

But overall the Los Angeles district is a model for the nation in terms of its comprehensive sexual education curriculum, Kordic added. It was the first district nationally to get a chapter on LGBT relationships included in a sex education textbook.

Districts will continue to tailor their sex ed courses to their student populations as long as they adhere to state requirements. Despite the long agenda middle and high schools are now mandated to cover, the state does not provide curriculum, but it does review versions from curriculum companies for use.

And there are volumes of research on how to teach these issues effectively and appropriately, said Sharla Smith, school health education consultant for the California Department of Education. School districts are poring through existing and emerging lesson plans from curriculum companies responding to the new requirements. And some districts are writing their own.

“Local control is in effect,” Smith said.

At Berkeley High the school year started with a freshman welcome assembly called SPARK, Student Power Actualized Through Respect and Kinship. It addressed a host of topics including discrimination, sexual harassment and consent.

Students watched the Tea and Consent video comparing initiating sex with making someone a cup of tea. The analogy stresses that you don’t pressure or force someone to drink tea if they don’t want it and you certainly don’t pour it down their throat if they’re unconscious or asleep.

“No packaged curriculum is going to hit all the issues that are relevant in your community,” said Hasmig Minassian, a teacher leader at Berkeley High. So staff there have been developing their own curriculum. Now all 9th graders will get the same comprehensive material Minassian said.

School districts that require high school students to complete a health education course for graduation have another mandate to meet as of January 2016. They are required to include affirmative consent instruction stemming from the passage of Senate Bill 695, first-of-its-kind legislation nationally. That law followed the Yes Means Yes law passed in 2014 combatting sexual assault on college campuses.

To teach affirmative consent San Francisco Unified partners with Expect Respect SF, a City College of San Francisco program that collaborates with local domestic and sexual violence prevention programs. College students come into the high schools to present lessons on healthy relationships. They talk about affirmative consent, how to empower oneself and set boundaries in relationships, said Christopher Pepper, a teacher on special assignment at the district.

And San Francisco teachers have collaborated with staff from health clinics and community organizations in the city to develop a sex education curriculum called Be Real Be Ready. San Francisco’s high schools have been using it for three years and it is free to other districts, Pepper said.

“One of the unique things about the curriculum is we’re able to build in multiple points of connection with people in the health community,” he said. That helps make students feel more comfortable about using those resources when they need them. In addition, all standard San Francisco high school campuses have wellness centers to serve students’ social and emotional needs.

Parents and guardians appear to be on board with the more comprehensive approach to sex education. They have the ability to excuse their children from these lessons, but Craig said of the 3,000 students at Berkeley High, none have been pulled from class.

Teachers are also supportive of having more class time to deal with such sensitive and important issues, Minassian said. “There’s no other place in their lives where we’re guaranteed they’re getting this.”

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