Sex ed in California is supposed to be comprehensive. Under state policy, students are to receive information that is medically accurate, science-based, and age-appropriate. Educators also must teach students about condoms and other contraceptives, and about when, how, and why to delay sexual activity. Instruction also must be free of biases regarding gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity.
But according to a study last year by the Oakland-based reproductive health organization Forward Together, there is a wide gulf between policy and reality in the city's public schools. In 2012, more than half of the high school students in the Oakland Unified School District didn't receive any sex education. And while OUSD has implemented a program for middle-school students, the district still has a long way to go toward providing a comprehensive sex-ed curriculum for older kids.
Over the years, budget cuts to public education have deeply impacted sex-ed programs. The hacking has been so extensive that, in some schools, sex ed has disappeared completely. Although organizations like Peer Health Exchange, Girls Inc., and Planned Parenthood provide services to try to fill in the gaps, these efforts are inconsistent.
The absence of sex-ed instruction also can impact the rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections — and, thus, attendance as well. Oakland has the dubious honor of having the highest chlamydia rates in Alameda County.
In 2011, while working with students on Forward Together's Young Mamas and Young Men's campaigns in Oakland, the nonprofit organization's staffers began to hear rumblings from the students that they were not receiving sex ed in district schools. So Forward Together commissioned an in-depth report on sex ed in OUSD, compiling data through focus groups and more than five hundred surveys of high school students. Released in August of 2012, the report Let's Get It On revealed the full extent of the flagging sex ed programs in the district.
Among the key findings: 62 percent of students reported spending no time on sex education. Skyline and Castlemont high schools had the largest percentage of students who reported that they had not spent time in a sex education class in 2012 — 75 and 77 percent, respectively; 43 percent of 9th grade students reported spending no time on sex education in 2012. The report noted that, for some young people, schools are the only place they get any information at all on the subject.
Race and culture can have a significant impact on students' knowledge about sex. For example, 33 percent of Asian-American students surveyed indicated that they had never heard anything from their parents about sex, compared to 18 percent of African-American students. Family barriers were especially an issue for LGBTQ students. According to the survey, 46 percent of LGBTQ students report that their parents/caregivers don't talk to them at all about sex, compared to 27 percent of heterosexual students.
Staffers at Forward Together reached out to school board members with the findings, hoping to collaborate on solutions. Newly elected board member Rosie Torres, who represents the Fruitvale district, was among the earliest backers of re-prioritizing sex education.
"They [Forward Together] gave a very well organized presentation," said Torres. "It was an hour and ten minutes, and it was riveting. The girls in the room were telling their own personal stories, you know, something gone wrong, with domestic violence, with someone questioning their own sexuality. I really wish that there had been something like this when I was a teenager."
"Health (or illness) shouldn't be something that just happens to our students; we should be building their capacity to take ownership of it, make healthy decisions, and support healthy choices in their friends, families, and communities," wrote Joanna Locke, director of Health and Wellness in OUSD's Family, Schools and Community Partnerships department, in an email.
But the challenge, as with everything else in education, is funding. A five-year $269,118 grant from the Centers for Disease Control is helping boost the district's efforts. "Through the new CDC grant, the district will launch a to-be-determined comprehensive sex ed curriculum in all secondary schools that aligns with current OUSD efforts," said Curtiss Sarikey, associate superintendent of Family, Schools and Community Partnerships for the district.
The district's plan is to move beyond the rote curriculum that is often common in sex-ed programs. Instead of one-off classes about condoms, the district plans to build a comprehensive program that meets the needs of LGBTQ students and incorporates meaningful content for students who are differently abled.
One program in the district that already meets the CDC's grant criteria is Making Proud Choices, which the district has rolled out to middle schools throughout the city. Described by Sarikey as one of the few "evidence-based" curricula available, the eight units of instruction include information on HIV, condom usage, and teen pregnancy, and incorporate role-playing and videos targeted to eleven- to thirteen-year-olds. There has been some grumbling from parents who have deemed the material "too advanced" (in the words of one OUSD official). But parents can opt their children out of the program if they have qualms about their sixth-grader learning about oral and anal sex and how to put on a condom.
District officials have also noted that comprehensive sex ed programs can help reduce violence in schools by providing students with skills to cope with emotional issues that can arise during or following sexual encounters. "So maybe we can approach this a different way — frame this a different way: prevent bullying, prevent violence, promote trust," Torres said. "I feel like it could be a broad lens, you know, we could turn some parents off calling it sex ed, but we could broaden the framing."
And ideally, bring down those chlamydia rates.