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 3-2 early Thursday to scrap the sex education 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 2016 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.”
Hundreds of parents, along with some teachers and current and former students, 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.
“My religion prescribes that all human beings are created in the image of God, and gender is an essential characteristic of individual identity and purpose,” said parent Teri Topham, who opposed the new curriculum because she felt it told young children that they could choose their gender.
"You want your children to follow your value system," she said. "And the burden lies with education system to be as careful as possible."
But pediatrician and Fremont parent Sonia Khan said educators should follow the data.
“It’s very difficult to deal with the idea that there’s a large volume of people who feel that their opinions are as valid as facts," Khan said.
As an American Muslim, Khan said she was sensitive to diverse religious beliefs.
“It’s distressing to me to see parents of socially conservative -- with a small c -- background, not appreciate that what they are trying to dispense with is a critical tool for their own children to maintain the kind of abstinence that they are proponents of," she said.
Khan said she was also concerned by the spread of misinformation in the debate, including some more explicit imagery and language being presented as part of the lesson plan -- when it was suggested material for parents -- not children.
Sex ed was a “critical tool that’s being dispensed with in the political fight and the belief that somehow there are liberals out there who are trying to sexualize your children,” Khan said.
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."
Some parents had objected to specific teachings, like one in the grade six curriculum that detailed a couple who are dating and making out: The boy lifts up the girls shirt to touch her breast. She pulls her shirt back down and keeps kissing him, but as he keeps pressuring her for more, she says "no" and leaves.
Parent Vijay Ghanta said that example was too explicit for children.
"Teaching appropriate sexual behaviour starts at home," Ghanta said, adding that he believed a loving and respectful relationship should be modeled by parents.
"My son might see me and my wife argue and fight, but he also sees us get together at the end of the day and talk our differences out. Where is that being shown?" he asked of the new curriculum. "Only thing that is shown here is how to act in a sexually explicit fashion, which is wrong."
Fremont Unified teacher Sherea Westra said the contested sixth grade teaching taught a necessary lesson about consent that is now more important than ever in this #MeToo moment: "You can't say you have to wait until they are in college to get this information -- or even high school."
"And if they are not getting it," she added, "they are going to go elsewhere and get inappropriate information or misinformation, and then we are going to be in they cycle we've been in for years where there is tons of sexual harassment and abuse."
A number of students were on board with the proposed sex ed plan and attended school board meetings to show their support, including LGBTQ teens who said they'd been bullied because of a lack of awareness around gender and sexual identities.
Leena Yin, a Fremont schools graduate who teaches sexual health in the East Bay, presented a petition to the board 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 sex ed instruction that respects the beliefs of parents and adheres to state standards for next year.
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.