Maryjane Davis attends a training with mom Sara Angulo (left) about the Fresno city and county government. Maryjane has made it her mission to inform other teens at school about sexual health, and plans to become a lawyer. (Farida Jhabvala Romero / KQED)
Maryjane Davis, a 17-year-old with long brown hair, pulls out a thick, white binder from her backpack in the bedroom she shares with her two younger sisters. The binder is filled with information -- about different kinds of contraceptives, how to prevent sexually transmitted infections, and emotionally healthy relationships versus abusive ones.
Maryjane carries it almost daily to her high school in Fresno. It’s a handy tool she turns to when other students approach her during lunch breaks with questions about sexual health or how to select the right contraceptive.
“I just keep it on my person. That way in case someone needs something, I can just pull it out," she says. “It makes me feel like a superhero. And it's kind of like a superpower to know about sex ed and healthy relationships.”
Maryjane trained to become a peer health ambassador at Fresno Barrios Unidos, a local education and advocacy group.
Three years ago, Maryjane wasn’t as informed. She thought kissing equaled sex. She had all kinds of questions, but asking her parents or searching online wasn’t yielding answers. Many of her friends were in the same boat, she says. Some were getting pregnant and dropping out of school.
It worried her that some teen moms she knew “weren't sure how they got pregnant or when they even started to get pregnant,” she says. When Maryjane sought to learn more about sex, she says her middle school teacher handed her an “abstinence card” to sign. It stated that the person signing it would avoid sex until marriage.
“I didn’t even know what the word abstinence meant,” she says. “It was just one card and that was going to be my sex ed class."
New State Law Requires Comprehensive Sex Ed
Until last year, public schools in California were not required to teach sex education, although information on HIV/AIDS prevention has been mandatory. At Fresno Unified, the fourth largest school district in the state, students learned about HIV/AIDS prevention and some sex ed. But youth health advocates say the quality and accuracy of that education varied greatly from school to school, leaving many kids without the necessary tools to make informed decisions about their health.
Fresno County has the state’s second highest rates of the sexually transmitted infections chlamydia and gonorrhea, according to the California Department of Public Health. The county also has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy.
Barrios Unidos has been filling the gap in education. For years, it has offered teen pregnancy prevention and other sex ed through after school programs. Maryjane signed up for one course and felt empowered by the new information.
Maryjane and other students lobbied Fresno Unified to improve its sex ed, and last October, the school board approved a comprehensive program.
The Fresno Unified school board’s vote came just two months before a California law requiring all districts to provide comprehensive sexual education and HIV prevention went into effect. The California Healthy Youth Act mandates that curriculum on “human development and sexuality, including education on pregnancy, contraception and sexually transmitted infections” be provided to students at least once in junior high or middle school and once in high school. Parents can refuse the classes on behalf of their children.
'Full Imprementation' in Fresno Schools
Science and biology classes at Fresno Unified now teach 7th and 9th graders the Positive Prevention Plus curriculum, the highest-rated sexual health education program approved by the California Department of Education, says Rosario Sanchez, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Fresno Unified.
“We are in full implementation,” says Sanchez. “Giving (our students) access to this information is critical, so we can reduce the county stats that are stark.”
Fresno Unified, with 73,000 students, now also contracts with Barrios Unidos to provide half of the sex ed courses to high school students.
“The education they are getting is very comprehensive and medically accurate," says Socorro Santillan, executive director at Barrios Unidos. Students "will be able to make good decisions for themselves not based on scare tactics, but knowledge.”
Fourteen other area school districts are working with the Fresno County Office of Education to provide the classes, says Kayla Wilson, a consultant with FCOE.
Over the last two months, Wilson and five nurses have been teaching a similar curriculum to 7th and 9th graders in the Fresno County school districts of Fowler, Mendota and Firebaugh-Las Deltas.
Wilson said a lot of her outreach work focuses on speaking with parents and school boards about the curriculum, and addressing parents' and administrators' fears about what the students will be learning. She said no students have opted out so far.
At Maryjane Davis’ home, sex ed has changed the family dynamics. Maryjane's mother, Sara Angulo, was so inspired by her daughter's greater confidence and desire to help other teens after taking the sex ed course at Barrios Unidos that she took her 8- and 12-year-old daughters to age-appropriate sex ed classes at Barrios as well.
“I think it's very important that everyone learns,” says Angulo, 38. “There are questions that they won't ask me. But they'll ask someone else, and so it's awesome.”
Angulo, who has nine children, says when she was growing up, there was no talk about sex in her family.
“It was never, never talked about. I had my first (baby) at a very young age," she says. "It was almost expected to be a teenage mother in my family,” says Angulo.