Here’s what a new California law says about teaching abortion in class

Anti-abortion activist Anthony Levatino appears in a frame grab from a video recently shown in a sex-education class at Sutter Middle School in Sacramento.
Anti-abortion activist Anthony Levatino appears in a frame grab from a video recently shown in a sex-education class at Sutter Middle School in Sacramento. via YouTube

A Sutter Middle School science teacher was abiding by a relatively new state law when she raised the issue of abortion in her sex education class this month.

It was the format of her presentation that may have run afoul of guidelines — upsetting some parents and prompting the Sacramento City Unified School District to launch an investigation.

The law, enacted in 2016, requires school districts to ensure that all students in grades seven through 12 receive "comprehensive sexual health education," including information about abortion. Information presented in class must be "medically accurate and objective," according to the law. Parents must be notified of the curriculum in advance and have the option of excusing their children from all or part of the classes.

The teacher under fire aired graphic videos this month that depicted how abortions are performed during various stages of pregnancy. The videos are narrated by physician and anti-abortion activist Anthony Levatino, who describes in detail how the procedures destroy fetuses and urges viewers to "protect the unborn."

District spokesman Alex Barrios said this week that the videos were "completely inappropriate" to show in the classroom and against the district's policies for sex education curriculum. He said the district is investigating the matter, including whether parents were properly notified of the teacher's presentation.

Barrios said the Sacramento district began full implementation of the new law, known as the California Healthy Youth Act, in the 2017-18 school year. Teachers received training in October 2017 on the new curriculum and began presenting the lessons in January.

For middle school students, abortions are addressed in a portion of the curriculum titled "What If?" which addresses sexual decision making, the ending of pregnancy and adoption.

The district's written policies say that family life and sex education classes should "help students understand the biological, social, moral and ethical aspects of human sexuality and shall comply with the requirements of law and administrative regulation."

Teachers should "ensure that all sides of a controversial issue are impartially presented," the policies say.

A conservative law group on Wednesday came to the defense of the Sutter Middle School teacher, identified by parents as Jenny Thomas. Matthew McReynolds, senior staff attorney for the Pacific Justice Institute, said the group has "reached out" to Thomas.

"We want to make sure that she is given a fair process," said McReynolds. "That she's not punished differently from a teacher who shows a disturbing video like 'Schindler's List' in history class, for example."

The organization is concerned, he said, that "the district might have an eye toward harsher punishment of this teacher based on the unfavorable light cast on abortion" in the videos she aired. "Our concern is that the investigation might be tainted by a desire to shield the students from unpleasant facts."

Barrios would not elaborate on the investigation, calling it a personnel matter. The teacher and her principal did not respond to a request for comment.

Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, said the teacher "should have known that the materials presented were not compliant with the law. "

"These issues must be presented in an unbiased way, to avoid shaming or stigmatizing students who have faced these issues or may face them in the future," she said.

The videos "advance an ideologically biased view of abortion, and that is not permitted under the law," Burlingame said.

McReynolds said the question of whether Thomas notified parents is a key issue in the case.

"Notice is huge when it comes to sex ed," he said. Typically, said McReynolds, it is the district's responsibility to inform parents about specific elements of a curriculum. It is unclear whether the district knew about the Sutter Middle School teacher's plans in advance.

"The entire curriculum is to be made available. Parents should have access to everything," McReynolds said. But some parents overlook or ignore notices even when they are issued, he added.

Two parents who spoke to The Bee about the Sutter Middle School case said they were unaware of the anti-abortion videos until after their children saw them.

California's relatively new sex education law, which Burlingame called the most comprehensive in the nation, has prompted controversy and questions across the state.

In Orange County, parents erroneously believed they could no longer "opt out" of sex ed classes on behalf of their youngsters. Other controversies have surrounded the graphic nature of some presentations. In Lafayette, parents objected to a guest speaker who worked at an adult toy store, McReynolds said.

In other communities, he said, parents have raised concerns about family planning presentations by Planned Parenthood.

"Controversies over sex ed are not going away," said McReynolds. "If anything, they seem to be ramping up, in part because sex ed is changing.

"The main goal is to help parents know what their rights are when it comes to sex education," he said, "so that they can make their own informed decisions about whether they want their kids to participate."

Burlingame said recent surveys have shown that, in the two years since the law passed, more sexually active young people are using contraception. The new curricula might be partially responsible, she said.

"Quality sex education in schools not only improves student health," said Burlingame, "but it creates opportunities for parents and students to have these conversations at home, and that's a good thing."

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