How Far Should Parents Dictate School Sex Ed? Debate Roils Bay Area Community

Fremont parents protest the city's sex education policy and curriculum on March 14, 2018. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

This story has been updated with the school board vote early Thursday and to add comments from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna. You can listen to a version of this story on The Bay podcast. Click here to subscribe.

The teaching of sex ed in fourth through sixth grades has been eliminated in the city of Fremont after months of controversy over a proposed new curriculum to comply with state law.

The Fremont Unified School District Board of Education voted early Thursday to scrap the sex ed program for fourth through sixth graders. Controversial content included addressing the emotional aspects of sex and sexual activity; the possibility that as adults, people may have more than one sexual partner; and inclusive LGBTQ lessons, like on transgender individuals and gender fluidity.

Up until the vote, sex ed had been taught in Fremont schools to fifth and sixth graders since the 1980s, and to fourth graders since 2011. The board approved the update to sex ed in seventh through ninth grades — which they were essentially required to do to comply with the California Healthy Youth Act.

"The majority of people here wanted to have sex education for fourth, fifth and sixth grade,” said school board member Larry Sweeney, who voted against the new sex ed instruction. "We just couldn’t agree on the content so the consequence is now there’s no sex education for fourth, fifth and sixth grades.”

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Hundreds of parents, along with some teachers and current and former students, have flooded four Fremont Unified school board meetings in the past two months, deeply divided over how to teach students as young as fourth grade about sex and sexuality. Amid the dispute, some opponents and supporters have lodged accusations of racism, homophobia and transphobia.

"This curriculum strives to combat and confront things like sexual assault and bigotry," said a supporter, parent Pallavi Somusetty.

“It’s too much details for them to digest,” countered Sunitha Devi Gopalan, a parent opposing the new instruction. “It’s actually going to kill their innocence, that’s what I think.”

Leena Yin, a Fremont schools graduate who teaches sexual health in the East Bay, had presented to the board a petition with more than 1,000 signatures from students who supported the new sex ed curriculum.

“The fact that what is best for the students and what the students are asking for was ignored is the most frustrating part of this whole process,” Yin said.

Following the vote, the school board said it would convene a panel of parents and experts to try to reach a consensus on a sex ed curriculum that respects the beliefs of parents and adheres to state standards for next year.

The U.S. congressman for the area, Rep. Ro Khanna, decried the decision.

"The repercussions of this are drastic: the board not only voted to reject CHYA compliant education but eliminated any sexual education for children at all," he said in a post on Facebook. "Sex education is critical for the safety of individuals of all ages, and this policy will silence voices, put students in danger, and increase overall risk in our communities."

Reaching Compliance

Rolled out in 2016, the California Healthy Youth Act set some of the most progressive sex ed requirements in the country: The curriculum includes instruction on same-sex relationships and different gender identities, with additional lessons on consent and sexual assault.

The law makes sexual education a requirement starting in seventh grade. When sex ed is taught at earlier ages, the law requires those lessons follow state guidelines. That's what Fremont Unified did when they drafted the new lesson plans for fourth through sixth grade, said Denise Herrmann, associate superintendent of instruction.

“What we used is the document that’s published by the state of California, that’s endorsed by pediatricians and by experts on puberty health and development, to help us make those grade level placements,” Herrmann said.

School board members had appeared divided over the issue, too, with some seeming to lean toward supporting parental control and others stressing the need for comprehensive sex ed. Many of the board members expressed hope they could find a viable compromise, but as tensions had flared, that had seemed less and less likely.

"You are elected by us, the parents in this room, not by social justice warriors, who aggressively promote their ideological agendas," one parent, Tony Szu, told the school board at its April meeting.

Other Bay Area school districts have had challenges implementing the new law, too: Last year, the nearby Cupertino Union School District backed off of making a similar update to its curriculum after a debate like the one in Fremont erupted.

‘Very Inappropriate’? Or, ‘We Shouldn’t Turn a Blind Eye’?

Parents and students at a Fremont school board meeting debating sex ed on Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

Parents like Danny Hsu said Fremont schools had crossed a line with the new sex ed proposal. His son, who is in fifth grade, was too young for these explicit details, he said.

“Some of the stuff that they talk about is, in my opinion, very, very inappropriate,” Hsu said. “In fourth grade, they are going to start talking about erections, they are going to talk about wet dreams. In fifth grade, they actually talk about if the male and female have sexual intercourse then the penis is inserted into the vagina.”

Though parents could opt their kids out of the course, students can find out what is being taught, said Sylvia Wong, whose daughter is in sixth grade.

“She told me one day, 'Mom, I know all these things already. Because kids who attended the class talk about things like, it’s so gross, that just took away my innocence,'” Wong said. “When I heard that I was really angry. Because you think that you can opt out and protect your child, and raise her up in a more traditional and conservative way.”

“They even talk about love-making positions,” she added. “They talk about sexual intercourse, anal sex. These things, I’m even ashamed to talk about it. I’m 45 years old, I don’t want my 10-year-old girl to be involved in that.”

Supporters of the new sex ed curriculum said talking about sex early can decrease sexual activity among young people. Pallavi Somusetty, who grew up attending Fremont public schools, said she wishes she had sex ed instruction earlier and she wants it for her children.

"Sex ed happened two years too late for me" -- two years, she said, after she got her period.

Lessons about consent, included in the new curriculum, came far too late for her best friend, who she said was sexually abused by a South Asian Fremont man in the 1990s. Somusetty said lessons about good touch and bad touch, far from stealing her friend’s innocence, might have protected it.

"We shouldn't turn a blind eye to these things, just because a minority of parents, some from my own South Asian community, want to pretend that they don't exist," Somusetty said.

Has Racism Entered the Debate?

The large majority of parents protesting the new sex ed curriculum were South Asian-American or Chinese-American. About 70 percent of students in the Fremont Unified School District are of Asian descent.

As the debate has grown more heated, parent Annie He said she was “starting to fear (for) my family’s safety." She said a post on a public forum about the sex ed instruction attacked "third world style people" for creating taboos about sex ed. As a Chinese immigrant, she said she felt it was a direct attack against her.

"I am highly educated," Annie He said. She thinks racism has taken over the debate, and singled out South Asian-American and Chinese-American parents.

Parents like Annie He said they weren't opposed to sex education. But they fear this curriculum teaches kids too much, too soon. “We just want to protect our children,” she said.

‘I Wish Sex Ed Was Made Available to the Parents Here’

Sameer Jha and his mother, Charmaine Hussain, at the Fremont Unified School District Board meeting (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

Another key part of the debate has been including topics about the LGBTQ community -- like diverse sexual and gender identities -- in the curriculum.

Sameer Jha, 16, joined the board meetings with his mom to back inclusive sex ed instruction. Jha said he was bullied constantly in elementary and middle school in Fremont for being feminine and for acting and looking different. It wasn't until after he left Fremont Unified, and started to commute to a private high school in Oakland, that he could come out to his parents and friends as queer.

“It was very scary,” he said. “Being LGBTQ plus was seen as taboo and I was the first person to come out in my local South Asian community here in Fremont.”

At first, his mother said she had a hard time with his identity.

“We had so many fears, so many biases," Charmaine Hussain said. "There’s so much stigma in our community."

Now Hussain is her son’s biggest cheerleader. As a Pakistani immigrant, she said she had to learn what it meant to be queer. Before her son came out, she said, “I didn’t even know that word existed."

“I wish sex ed was made available to the parents here,” she said. “I look at the sea of parents who are here in opposition because they’re so fearful of diversity and it makes me really realize how important what my son is doing.”

Jha said one of the reasons the inclusive sex ed curriculum is so important is to have kids talk about sexuality -- queer and otherwise. He said lessons like this may have prevented his being bullied.

Some parents opposed to the new curriculum said they didn’t want their kids to be taught about sexual and gender identity, while others said they didn’t want to exclude these topics but felt it was too early for their kids to learn about them.

Parent Taft Ding said he worried about language in the curriculum telling fourth graders they get to decide who they are -- echoing the concerns some parents had about lessons on transgender identity.

“To tell a girl, an innocent girl, that she is a boy, is evil,” Ding said. “It’s more than wrong.”

Parents like Salil Joshi said his objections had nothing to do with excluding the LGBTQ community -- it’s the content matter that concerns him.

“At the seventh grade there is a possibility that oral and anal sex may be discussed in class, I don’t understand why that is necessary,” Joshi said.

When asked about this objection to the curriculum, Anthony Prickett, a former Fremont student who has returned to support the sex ed update said, "That is how queer people have sex."

A Hate Group Involved?

A representative from The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay rhetoric and support of gay conversion therapy, has joined some of the school board meetings

PJI President Brad Dacus said his group got involved when a parent reached out to them with concerns over the new curriculum. Dacus, who said PJI isn’t a hate group, told KQED that they are concerned with parental rights and freedom of speech and religion.

Dacus said his group was monitoring the discussion and awaiting the school board’s decision. PJI has previously weighed in on various school debates in the Bay Area: It took credit for convincing the Cupertino Union School District to hold off on their sex ed curriculum update last year. And, in Alameda County in 2009, PJI fought against anti-bullying lessons in school, lessons they refer to on their website as part of a "pro-homosexual" curriculum.

The ACLU of Northern California has been watching the sex ed debate, too, on the side supporting the new curriculum.

Debates over acceptance of LGBTQ people aren’t new to Fremont -- nor are heated school board meetings. In 2010, some parents protested over the creation of a Harvey Milk Day.

Cal Jones Larisch, an 18 year old who identifies as a non-binary transgender person, has been coming to Fremont school board meetings since they were young.

"I've been booed when I've gone up and talked about my identity, and I've been bullied in school because of my identity," Jones Larisch said. "It is really devastating going through high school in this area."

When the Harvey Milk controversy flared, they remember a sign someone held up reading: "Milk was a pervert."

But things are getting better, Jones Larisch said.

"The board meetings used to be more hostile than they are right now," Jones Larisch said. "Though it’s not perfect, the climate in that room has changed significantly."

'These Are Very Curious Minds'

Parent Mina Naveed said she liked the current curriculum but is worried that the new one would teach kids about more than puberty: It would teach them to have sex.

“These are very curious minds,” she said. She described her daughter as always wanting to try the experiments she learns in science class at home. “So imagine they are learning about oral sex and anal sex in classrooms, and then they are going out to experiment.”

But it is precisely because kids have curious minds that they should be taught about sex by trained professionals, said Yasi Safinya-Davies, executive director of Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments, or SAVE, a Fremont-based nonprofit that provides support to victims of domestic violence.

“There’s not a single parent in this room who knows what it’s like to grow up and have a curiosity about your body and type that into a Google search,” she said.

All kids now live in the age of the internet, which doesn’t teach consent, but is just a click away from porn, said Safinya-Davies.

Her group works with a lot of young people who tell her, “We don’t have adults in our lives who are having earnest, open conversations about our relationships, about our sexuality,” she said. “We didn’t even know what consent was.”

As a parent, she is sympathetic with the opposition.

“I absolutely understand the concern that parents have around this curriculum,” she said. “Because if you didn’t grow up learning about your sexuality, and certainly not in a comprehensive way, this is all new.”