New laws require update of school sex ed programs

New laws require update of school sex ed programs

(Calif.) If the data are accurate, many California districts have some work to do in order to comply with two new laws that significantly alter the content and delivery of sex education to middle- and high school students.

As of Jan. 1, all public schools are required to provide sexual health and HIV/AIDS education that includes instruction around gender identity and sexual orientation as well as negotiation, refusal and decision-making skills to help students overcome peer pressure and avoid high-risk activities.

In addition, high schools that require completion of a health education course for graduation must now include instruction in sexual harassment, relationship violence and the concept of “affirmative consent” – meaning that prior to engaging in sex, both parties must verbally agree that they want to.

“In light of Assembly Bill 329 and Senate Bill 695, school districts should review current policies and practices regarding sexual health and HIV education to ensure compliance with the newly amended laws,” said Lozano Smith partner Sloan Simmons, who analyzed the two pieces of legislation that effectively created the California Healthy Youth Act.

Simmons noted that districts should also verify that staff and/or outside experts are appropriately trained in medically accurate sexual health and HIV education, and that students are required to participate in the classes unless a written “opt out” form is submitted by a parent or guardian.

California’s update of its K-12 sex education laws comes even as the issue continues to drive contentious debate elsewhere.

A recent report by the Associated Press out of Omaha, where the school board is attempting the first update of its sex education curriculum in three decades, described a raucous public meeting there as being reflective of the “divisions that have bedeviled school boards nationwide, as well as state legislatures and even Congress.”

“In Omaha, as in many U.S. communities, some parents and conservative activists insist that any school-based sex education emphasize sexual abstinence as the wisest course,” the AP article stated. “Yet as more young people turn to social media and online resources — including pornography— for sex-related information, there's pressure on schools from other quarters to offer accurate, candid information that can compete with and correct what's available beyond the classroom.”

For its part, California has – without all the controversy – moved well beyond simplistic discussions of basic anatomy and pregnancy and STD prevention, although these topics are included in the comprehensive list of subject matter schools are expected to cover.

Prior to the passage of AB 329, schools were “encouraged” but not required to provide sex education, although HIV/AIDS prevention education has been mandated since 1992.

Still, according to state officials, research has shown that 96 percent of all California school districts offer a program of sexual health education. That same research, they said, showed that 93 percent of the schools combine sex ed and HIV/AIDS prevention into one class – something AB 329 now makes mandatory as well.

In spite of those findings, lawmakers behind AB 329 cited a 2011 University of California, San Francisco report that concluded while there have been improvements in instruction “there remain problems regarding school district compliance” with the law.

That study, Uneven Progress: Sex Education in California Schools, found, for instance, that:

  • Twenty-five percent of districts omitted required HIV prevention topics.
  • Fifty-eight percent of districts included required information about contraception in middle and high school.
  • Sixteen percent of districts taught students that condoms are not an effective way to prevent pregnancy and transmission of STIs.
  • Nineteen percent of districts reported that birth control methods are mentioned but that most of the instructional time was spent on the benefits of abstinence.
  • Thirty percent of districts addressed sexual orientation.
  • Thirty-seven percent of districts did not provide required teacher training.
  • Thirty-nine percent of districts failed to provide required materials in languages other than English.
  • Twenty-seven percent of districts failed to provide required materials to make content accessible to students with disabilities.

In addition to calling for “comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased sexual health and HIV prevention” instruction, AB 329 requires schools to “provide educators with clear tools and guidance to accomplish that end.”

Among the many requirements included in AB 329, the new law calls for a sex education program that:

  • Provides pupils with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect their sexual and reproductive health from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and from unintended pregnancy;
  • Provides pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family;
  • Promotes understanding of sexuality as a normal part of human development.

SB 695, the so-called affirmative consent law, requires that a school district mandating a course in health education for graduation from high school include instruction in sexual harassment and violence, including information on the affirmative consent standard, and ensure that teachers consult information related to sexual harassment and violence in the health framework when delivering health instruction.

The bill, signed into law last October by Gov. Jerry Brown, also requires that, when the state’s health curriculum framework is next revised, the Instructional Quality Commission consider including comprehensive information on sexual harassment and violence for grades 9 to 12. A list of the types of information that should be included is listed in the legislation.

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