CREDIT: Alison Yin / EdSource
Students at Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif.

Recent concerns expressed by those opposed to the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer + content in school sexual health curricula are misguided.

Headshot of Kelli Bourne

Kelli Bourne

Having taught sexual health education at a public middle school for thirteen years, I understand that parental feelings of nervousness and fear are often coupled with sexual health education in schools. But I have found that most apprehensions can be laid to rest when parents feel their concerns are heard and objectively addressed by a teacher who knows and has taught the material. 

Therefore, I encourage parents, educators and community members to critically consider the function of the California Health Framework and the importance of comprehensive sexual health education in schools.

It is important to remember that the framework is not a mandate. It merely serves as a guide for school districts regarding the scope and sequence of their health education curriculum — in what grades health education is taught, what topics and for how long. The curriculum itself varies by district. Moreover, the framework suggests teachings on sexual behaviors, sexual orientation, biological sex and gender identity at a time and in a manner that is deemed developmentally and age appropriate.

This appropriateness is decided by each school district, taking into account input from parents, students, health professionals and the members of its local community. Furthermore, resources related to sexual orientation, biological sex and gender identity that appear in the framework are not required student readings, but rather are information sources for teachers and families.

As with the framework, similar concern has risen in pockets throughout California regarding the California Healthy Youth Act, a law that went into effect January of 2016. This law mandates that public school students (including, more recently, charter school students) receive comprehensive sexual health education instruction that is medically accurate, inclusive and developmentally appropriate once in middle school and again in high school.

Under this law, schools have a legal obligation to make the sexual health curriculum that students are learning available to parents, ensure that teachers receive training and honor the parental right to opt a student out of the curriculum entirely.

Despite these provisions, concern over the law’s requirement of content including sexual orientation, biological sex and gender identity content has stymied implementation of the California Healthy Youth Act in a handful of school districts in California. And while protests against the law do not overtly state disapproval of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ youth in the California Healthy Youth Act, the tone is far from supportive.

Why is including and affirming the range of sexual orientation, biological sex and gender identity in sexual health curriculum important? It saves lives. It levels the information playing field for every student. It links students to resources. It dispels myths and stereotypes. It affirms everyone’s membership in the classroom, school and greater community. It creates safer spaces. It is supported by an overwhelming majority of parents statewide. It is validated and recommended by many reputable associations, including the National Parent-Teacher Association, American Psychological Association and American Medical Association. And while it might spark critical thinking, it does not purposefully contradict family-held religious or cultural values.

If you think about it, what LGBTQ+ inclusivity accomplishes should be a goal for all educators in all subject areas.

The overall purpose of providing this education in schools is to support healthier outcomes for California teens, in particular LGBTQ+ youth, who are at risk for suicide, substance abuse, hate incidences, sexual violence, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections at disproportionately higher rates than their peers.

Removing sexual orientation, biological sex and gender identity language from any framework or curriculum does not erase LGBTQ+ youth from existence. Instead it exacerbates their risk for negative health outcomes and other inequities. Furthermore, failing to implement the California Healthy Youth Act and withholding sexual health information that all students are entitled to puts all students at risk.

Research has shown that students who receive comprehensive sexual health education have delayed first sexual experiences, fewer lifetime partners, increased contraceptive use and decreased rates of unintended pregnancy compared with those who do not. It can also strengthen relationships, promote positive body image, contribute to academic achievement and foster emotional resilience. Most importantly, in my experience as a teacher and based upon research, students want sexual health information! If a positive impact on student development is demonstrated and preparation for a healthy and fulfilling adulthood is achieved, why would we allow this education to be held back?

To support comprehensive sexual health education, the California Healthy Youth Act and LGBTQ+ youth in your community:

  • Be informed about school board candidates who support the California Healthy Youth Act.
  • Attend county and local school district board meetings and speak during the public comment portion.
  • Contact your school’s principal or district’s superintendent to ask about or articulate support for California Healthy Youth Act implementation.
  • When your child is going to receive comprehensive sexual health education, attend your school’s parent curriculum preview in solidarity with other parents who support comprehensive sexual health education and the California Healthy Youth Act.

•••

Kelli Bourne has taught health education for 13 years at Irvine Unified School District in Orange County and has a master’s in public health, master’s in education and California clear teaching credential in health science.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Anita 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Will this cover good and bad touch, so that children whom are molested come forward and understand what it is? Many who commit the crimes are family members and teach them it’s ok, when it’s not.

  2. Amy 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you!

  3. Brenda Lebsack 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you Ms Bourne for your response. Your cited study shows they asked questions about: puberty, healthy relationships, abstinence, birth control methods, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual orientation. Where is "Gender Identity" and the "Gender Spectrum of Unlimited Genders"? It would be helpful to see the actual parent survey of the questions. I am also "boots on the ground". I taught High School in Las Vegas for many years … Read More

    Thank you Ms Bourne for your response. Your cited study shows they asked questions about:
    puberty, healthy relationships, abstinence, birth control methods, sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual orientation. Where is “Gender Identity” and the “Gender Spectrum of Unlimited Genders”? It would be helpful to see the actual parent survey of the questions. I am also “boots on the ground”. I taught High School in Las Vegas for many years before coming back to OC to teach. I understand the importance of objective, medically accurate sex education. Teen Talk is neither of these.

    Replies

    • Kelli Bourne 2 months ago2 months ago

      Thank you for your additional response Ms. Lebsack. I would like to point out that the curriculum that you mention, Teen Talk, underwent rigorous review for medical accuracy by physicians and health professionals from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and CA Office of Family Planning. (https://www.health-connected.org/curriculum-review) Also, the survey for the 2017 study that was mentioned is included in the link provided. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180250 While I recognize that the nuances of sexual health education are very important for … Read More

      Thank you for your additional response Ms. Lebsack.

      I would like to point out that the curriculum that you mention, Teen Talk, underwent rigorous review for medical accuracy by physicians and health professionals from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and CA Office of Family Planning. (https://www.health-connected.org/curriculum-review)

      Also, the survey for the 2017 study that was mentioned is included in the link provided. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180250

      While I recognize that the nuances of sexual health education are very important for parents to know and understand, let’s not forget that parents have the right to opt their student out of the curriculum entirely if they are not in agreement.

      Thank you.

  4. Brenda Lebsack 2 months ago2 months ago

    Ms Bourne, You stated that the California Health Youth Act (CHYA - AB 329) is supported by an overwhelming majority of parents statewide. After I read Teen Talk, which is a top curriculum recommended to districts statewide as being highly compliant to AB 329, I was very surprised by this claim of parental approval. The curriculum contained unprecedented controversial content such as: Pansexuality, Asexuality, Anal Sex, oral sex on anus, the … Read More

    Ms Bourne,

    You stated that the California Health Youth Act (CHYA – AB 329) is supported by an overwhelming majority of parents statewide. After I read Teen Talk, which is a top curriculum recommended to districts statewide as being highly compliant to AB 329, I was very surprised by this claim of parental approval.

    The curriculum contained unprecedented controversial content such as: Pansexuality, Asexuality, Anal Sex, oral sex on anus, the Gender Queer Umbrella (teaching unlimited genders such as being BOTH genders, neither gender, Gender fluid, Transgender, Male, Female and anywhere in-between) The footnote referenced in the Teen Talk curriculum defining “non-binary” and the “gender spectrum” is: tps://www.genderspectrum.org/quick-links/understanding-gender

    After reading this curriculum, I was shocked to see this 89% approval rating which ACLU quoted in the Advocacy Tool Kit for Comprehensive Sex Education in context of the California Healthy Youth Act (AB 329). https://www.aclunc.org/docs/advocacy_toolkit.pdf

    When I spoke to parents in my community about this, many had never heard most of these terms before. Due to my skepticism, I contacted the professor from Berkeley, Dr. Norman Constantine, who conducted the study. I asked him if I could view the parent survey given in the study. He graciously emailed me the study in its entirety. Interestingly enough, none of the most controversial topics from the curriculum were included in the 24 page parent survey. There was not one question about gender identity, pansexuality, asexuality, anal sex, oral sex on anus, or the gender spectrum / queer umbrella. Plus the study was conducted in 2007 and the law was not passed until 2015 and implemented in 2016. I’m not sure some of these words even existed in 2007.

    So when it comes to boasting about an “overwhelming majority” of parental approval, I think another study should be conducted. This 2007 study, being referenced by the ACLU and repeated by others, does not reflect parental approval because essential components from the 2016 Calif Healthy Youth Act curriculum were not included in the survey. Parents should not be misrepresented or misled.

    Thank you again for the dialogue,

    Replies

    • Kelli Bourne 2 months ago2 months ago

      Dear Ms. Lebsack, I concur that the mentioned statistic of parental support of comprehensive sexual health education in California is not as current as one could be and that more peer-reviewed research is needed. However, I feel that this should not discredit the finding. More recently, a 2017 national study conducted by Kantor & Levitz found that 93% of parents supported comprehensive sexual health education in schools, with 78% (in middle school) and 85% … Read More

      Dear Ms. Lebsack,

      I concur that the mentioned statistic of parental support of comprehensive sexual health education in California is not as current as one could be and that more peer-reviewed research is needed. However, I feel that this should not discredit the finding.

      More recently, a 2017 national study conducted by Kantor & Levitz found that 93% of parents supported comprehensive sexual health education in schools, with 78% (in middle school) and 85% (in high school) supporting the inclusion of sexual orientation. (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180250) One might argue that this still represents an overwhelming majority and supports Constantine’s findings from 2007.

      Perhaps more credible would be a mention of my “boots on the ground” experience with teaching this content, in which I have observed very few student opt-outs (which have always been fully respected as a family decision) since the California Healthy Youth Act commenced in 2016, as well as in years’ prior. I realize that my experience may or may not reflect the experience of other teachers.

      It is extremely important to honor both the rights of parents and students. If parents do not want their children learning about such “unprecedented controversial” topics they have every parental right to remove their student from participating in the curriculum. What people do not have the right to do is to interrupt its implementation, as all students have the right to this information.

      Thank you.