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