The California Department of Education approved controversial changes to the state’s health and sex education framework on Wednesday, but removed five resources and books that some organizations called “sexually explicit,” including a book that explains sex to students as young as kindergarten.
Despite large protests, the department unanimously approved new guidelines for elementary school grades about sex trafficking, sexual orientation and how to support transgender and non-conforming students in the classroom.
The department’s meeting focused on revisions for the Health Education Framework, which makes K-12 public school health curriculum recommendations for the next decade. More than 120 people signed up for public comment to support or oppose the changes.
The meeting was preceded by a rally at Capitol Park, where nearly 200 people gathered to protest the framework revisions
“How are they helping kids find themselves when they are confusing them about who they are, or they could possibly be nothing at all,” said Stephanie Yates, founder of Informed Parents of California. The organization has grown to over 20,000 members since it was founded last year.
Yates took to the dais at the meeting, and criticized Department of Education board members for approving decisions on behalf of the state’s children. Dozens of people who filled the building’s lobby cheered as they watched Yates on a live feed call the new revisions part of a political agenda and — like others — refer to the material as pornography.
But others supported the changes.
“What we are seeing in the Sacramento community is an open arms approach to this curriculum, “ said Cheri Greven, the local Planned Parenthood director of Public Affairs. “A number of parents spoke up saying they were in favor of this. One father told me it allowed him and his son to open a new line of communication about these topics.”
The framework covers a wide range of topics for students in K-12 education including nutrition, physical activity, growth and sexual health. It also covers topics like alcohol, tobacco, other drug use, and emotional and personal health.
Most of the changes that stirred controversy involved sex education.
“After rising levels of sexually transmitted diseases in teenagers nationwide, this framework was created to help provide necessary education to ensure that students are equipped to make informed and educated decisions when it comes to their sexual health,” education department spokesperson Kindra Britt said in a statement. “It was also designed to take the needs of our LGBTQ youth into consideration to make sure they felt safe and supported while at school.”
Several organizations have called the revisions “sexually explicit,” and say that the framework’s recommended books show how “offensive, reckless and immoral” the framework is. The education department removed five of the books, but clarified they were not banning the books. According to the state’s website, the books were listed as resources for parents to discuss sensitive issues with their children at home.
One book, titled “Changing You,” which was recommended for removal, shows cartoon illustrations of male and female genitals to educate students on the terminology. It also explains what “having sex is.” The book was recommended for transitional kindergarten through third grade.
“There are all kinds of alternatives, but they want to teach sex ed with the guise that they were trying to prevent sexual transmitted diseases and prevent teen pregnancy,” said Greg Burt, director of California Family Council. “Now we are teaching kids how to have a robust sex life. Not everything under the sun needs to be taught to our kids, with no moral judgment.”
Schools are not required to implement the framework; they are merely recommendations for teachers and administrators. Students can opt-out from lessons about sexual health. But the state says students can’t opt-out of lessons that include gender identity, discrimination and explain social issues such as the Supreme Court ruling of same sex marriage.
“Our priority is to make all children feel comfortable at school,” read a statement from the department of education. “Dispelling myths, breaking down stereotypes and linking students to resources can help prevent bullying, self-harm, feelings of hopelessness, and serious considerations of suicide.”
While every school has the autonomy to choose its own curriculum, teachers from all over the state expressed concerns at the hearing.
“Teachers are afraid they will be forced to teach concepts that go against their conscience, and use non-binary terms or else they could lose their jobs,” said Brenda Lebsack, who teaches in Santa Ana Unified and is a school board member in Orange Unified.
Some teachers and instructors said organizations and schools already implementing aspects of the framework have reported it has been beneficial to their students.
“A student left me an anonymous note thanking me for including transgender students as examples in my lessons,” said Sarah Hyde, who teaches health classes in Fremont. “Teachers may feel overwhelmed and will not know how to address every child.”
Michele McNutt, a registered nurse from Orange County, said she has worked with her local school districts to push for implementation of the new framework.
“It’s critical to give students medically accurate, scientific, unbiased information about their health and their bodies so they can make the best decisions about how to keep themselves safe and protect their reproductive health,” said McNutt. “The younger grades also learn about healthy relationships, consent, and ways to interact with peers who might be different than they are.”
The estimated cost of revising the Health Education Framework is $550,000 over three budget years. It will replace the 2003 framework, which includes material from the 1990s.
“If we are able to be the land of the free, then we must be the land of the educated and informed,” said Rick Oculto, director of Our Family Coalition, which supports equity for children. “Our children are not made safer by ignorance.”
The California Healthy Youth Act, signed into law three years ago, requires that school districts teach students grades seven to 12 comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education. It is permissible to teach sexual health and HIV prevention related content to elementary aged students, according to the department of education.
“We always respect the rights of parents, but we also have a duty to protect students who have been subject to bullying, self-harm, feelings of hopelessness, and serious considerations of suicide, and we feel that the framework is a critical step towards this goal,” Britt said.
Editor’s note: This story and headline were updated May 8 to clarify that the California Department of Education approved changes to the state’s health and sex education framework, not to the curriculum.