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Sex Ed Curriculum Sparks Controversy

A petition against the newly implemented sex education curriculum in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) middle schools garnered 1,600 signatures both online and in-person in regard to the potentially explicit and age-inappropriate content. The petition was presented to the PAUSD Board members at the District Board meeting on April 18.

The petition cites the “age and cultural inappropriateness” of the curriculum in highlighted excerpts of the Health Connected program, Teen Talk for seventh graders.

Additionally, the petition states the curriculum promotes risky behavior such as underage drinking, drug use and increased students’ curiosity in sexual activities.

The topic was discussed during the open forum portion of the board meeting. Over 20 individuals, ranging from community members to parents to students, spoke for or against the new sex education curriculum.

Parents opposed to the new curriculum argue that the scenarios, which include real teenager’s experiences with sex, may be insensitive to cultural values, contain explicit descriptions of oral, anal and vaginal sex and feature 14- to 18-year-olds rather than the target audience of seventh graders.

“People from different cultural backgrounds have different values they use to raise their children,” said Farha Andrabi Navaid, a PAUSD parent. “In order to teach sex education we do not have to use material which might be considered vulgar in certain cultural or religious viewpoints.”

Other individuals spoke out in favor of Health Connected program and how PAUSD has addressed the issue of sex education.

“The petition had a lot of misleading information and parts of the curriculum taken out of context and didn’t have all the information necessary, which may have alarmed some parents,”  said PAUSD parent Laura Prentiss. “I think the program itself is very good and very necessary.”

Parents in favor of the program also argue the real world scenarios provide students with clearer and more realistic viewpoints about sex.

“If we are not presenting a balanced, accurate and healthy education around sex, our kids will have warped perspectives of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate behavior.”

Laura Prentiss, PAUSD parent

The new curriculum was introduced as a result of the California Healthy Youth Act, which calls for school districts to implement material addressing all modes of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV prevention and gender identities and orientations; the act became effective on January 2016.

Health Connected, a nonprofit based in Redwood City, provides PAUSD with curriculum intended to teach the topics required by state law through its program Puberty Talk for fifth graders and Teen Talk for seventh graders, according to PAUSD Communications and Community Engagement Officer Jorge Quintana.

The district’s relationship with Health Connected began when the non-profit provided support to PAUSD living skills classes, which includes a high school-level sex education unit.

“Selecting Health Connected to provide elementary and middle school sexual health information allows for K-12 alignment in the district and continuity for our students and families,” Quintana said.

The district notified parents of the new curriculum after it was chosen.

“The content was fully vetted by our school principals and our chief academic officers,” Quintana said. “Parent meetings were offered at each middle school this year, and interactive parent education sessions were also offered by the district.”

California Law, PAUSD and Health Connected all give families the right to opt out their students from the programs.

In both Terman and JLS, where the programs have been completed, the opt out rate was approximately 1 percent.

The opt out numbers for Jordan have not yet been released as the program is currently ongoing, according to Superintendent Max McGee.

However, parents against the Health Connected program emphasize that they want their children to be educated in the subject of sex education, just not using the aforementioned programs.

“Opting out is not an option we are seeking,” Navaid said. “We want [students] to be educated, but we also want to adopt a measure which is sensitive to all cultures and religious values, the diversity that we like to boast about in PAUSD. Let’s embrace that diversity and the responsibilities that come with it.

Parents opposed to the Teen Talk program are pushing for more parent input in the selection of a new sex education program and the ability to work with the Board to make changes to the current curriculum. Parents feel as if it is also their responsibility to decide what their kids are learning.

“The school district will survey teachers … students and parents,” Quintana said. “District staff will present the results of the survey to the Board of Education along with recommendations for revising the program, replacing it with a new one…or developing either an in-house or hybrid model drawing from multiple sources.”

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