Church Backs Parental Rights as Californians Debate Sex Education

As explicit curricula in public schools spark protests, Catholics and other religious groups bolster parents with information and options.

Concerned Californians attend a rally, organized by Informed Parents of California, to protest a new sex education program, March 28 at the Capitol in Sacramento
Concerned Californians attend a rally, organized by Informed Parents of California, to protest a new sex education program, March 28 at the Capitol in Sacramento (photo: Concerned Parents of California)

SAN FRANCISCO — When Maria Martinez began to evaluate local school options for her young son earlier this year, a friend’s Facebook account flagged a brewing controversy that had escaped her notice.

Across California, as parents were challenging the adoption of explicit sexual-education curricula in some public-school districts, one activist group, Informed Parents of California, organized a rally March 28 in front of the State Board of Education’s headquarters in Sacramento. The new sex-education programs are designed to comply with the 2015 California Healthy Youth Act, which mandates the teaching of “medically accurate” and “age appropriate” comprehensive sex education at least once in middle school and once in high school, but some critics asserted that some curricula provided biased and inaccurate materials.

A staff member in the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Office of Human life and Dignity, Martinez decided to get a firsthand look at the scheduled protests in Sacramento.

“I hadn’t heard anyone talk about [this issue], not even on Catholic radio,” she told the Register.

After attending the rally and a public hearing held by the Instructional Quality Commission, an advisory body to the State Board of Education, Martinez was disturbed by what she viewed as a “lack of responsiveness” to the parents’ objections.

“I saw a lot of upset parents and a lot of dismissal of their concerns,” she recalled.

Back in San Francisco, she began working with other archdiocesan staff to research the issue, and they decided to create a website and organize a June 15 “Protecting Our Kids Seminar: Sex Education and Your Rights as Parents” event.

The program and website will “educate parents and give them resources and tools so they can be advocates for their own children,” she said. “There are a ton of Catholic kids in public school, and the local Church needs to get involved.”

In the two months since Martinez made the trip to the statehouse, the pushback against state-approved sex-education curricula has steadily increased.

California law allows parents to review the state-approved sex-education curriculum selected by their school district and download forms that permit their child to opt out of the classes. But some of the state’s 1,200 districts have failed to provide easy access to the instruction materials or made it difficult for parents to remove their child from the two-week program of classes.

Last month, the debate intensified as the California Board of Education approved its updated Health Education Framework, designed to help teachers meet state standards on health education, including sex education.

The new framework encourages but does not mandate classroom conversations in sixth grade about masturbation and kindergarten discussions on gender identity.

“[T]he goal is not to cause confusion about the gender of the child but to develop an awareness that other expressions exist,” read the newly approved document.

The framework is designed, in part, to promote inclusivity, and it offers detailed guidance for tackling a range of sensitive topics. For example, when a teacher addresses the challenges faced by transgender students undergoing puberty, the guidelines suggest that the lesson be presented in a way “that is inclusive and challenges binary concepts about gender.”


Parents Push Back

California School Board President Linda Darling-Hammond has sought to tamp down parental concerns. The new state framework is not designed “to be introducing things as though they are endorsed in some way,” she asserted at a May 8 hearing that drew hundreds of protesters.

But when parents raised concerns about specific books recommended in a previous draft of the state framework, the board removed several texts with graphic materials — a move that suggested its members were not in full command of the 700-page document.

Informed Parents of California organized a statewide “sit-out” May 17 at county departments of education buildings, where demonstrators, accompanied by their children, who had been kept home for the day, held signs with messages like, “No SeXXX Ed” and “Stop Attacking Our Parental Rights.”

Some protesters contend that sex education belongs in the home, not the classroom, while others believe that the lesson plans should focus on human reproduction and avoid controversial topics like abortion, contraception, sexual orientation and gender dysphoria.

The California Catholic Conference, for its part, has provided basic information about the Healthy Youth Act and related curricula issues on its website. The conference is working on S.B. 673, proposed legislation that will be introduced in 2020 and is designed to strengthen the rights of parents and facilitates their access to curricula.

Ray Burnell, the conference’s point man on education issues, told the Register that he will press for more clarity on the current law and support advocacy at the school district level, as needed.

Activists like Aileen Blachowski, a Catholic parent and a co-founder of Informed Parents of California, are more ready to press state lawmakers for what they believe is ignoring parental concerns.

Blachowski told the Register that she was worried about the “sexualization and indoctrination of our kids in California’s public schools.” She raised concerns about the Health Education Framework as well as specific curricula.

While the framework is not “mandatory,” she believes that younger teachers with less classroom experience will likely adopt it, confident in the knowledge that they will “be protected because” they are “complying with the law and the state-recommended guidance.”


Problematic Lesson Plans

Blachowski also pointed to serious problems with some state-approved curricula, like a sixth-grade lesson plan published in “Rights, Respect, Responsibility,” a program developed by Advocates for Youth and adopted by the San Diego Unified School District.

The first lesson, entitled, “Gender Roles, Gender Expectations,”  explains that the “language throughout the curriculum” uses “the pronoun ‘they’ instead of ‘her’ or ‘him’” and adopts terms like “‘someone with a vulva’ vs. a girl or woman. This is intended to make the curriculum inclusive of all genders and gender identities. You will need to determine for yourself how much and how often you can do this in your own school.”

The eighth-grade curriculum begins with a lesson entitled, “Blue Is for Boys, Pink Is for Girls … or Are They?” The next lesson provides students with the latest terminology and thinking on sexual matters: “Sexual Orientation, Behavior and Identity: How I Feel, What I Do, and Who I Am.”

Several units cover human sexual and reproductive “body parts.” A lesson on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) notes the selling points of sexual abstinence, but also encourages condom use and regular, confidential testing for sexually active middle-school students and, in doing so, endorsing Planned Parenthood. There are units on sexual trafficking and negotiating sexual activity.

As required by state law, San Diego Unified links to the “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” curriculum on its website, along with downloadable forms for parents who don’t want their child to participate in the instruction.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Unified School District has adopted a different curriculum, “Be Real. Be Ready: Smart Sexuality Education,” which offers a similar range of subjects for middle- and high-school students.

Local parents have not launched the kind of protests that effectively blocked the adoption of a sex-education curriculum in Orange County. But school authorities and experts are aware that the subject remains a sensitive issue.

“Sometimes adults are afraid that young people are going to have sex more often, and there’s lots of evidence that that’s not the case,” Christopher Pepper, a sex-ed teacher in San Francisco Unified told KALW public radio.

But other sources singled out the damaging impact of explicit or inappropriate sexual materials.

One local catechist, who said she could not use her name because of the sensitivity of the issue, told the Register that children in her catechetical program had complained about the instruction.

One teenage girl described her recent sexual-education program as “the worst two weeks of my life.”

The catechist believes that the programs must be challenged. They are “a violation of the person. They are guiding and grooming children to harm themselves,” she said.

“They are not really teaching; they are deforming children. Their innocent heart tells them this is wrong, but they can’t defend themselves.”


Guidance for Parents

Meanwhile, local Catholic parents are looking for guidance that will help them navigate the challenges ahead.

Maria Martinez shares their concerns, as a parent and an archdiocesan staffer, and hopes the upcoming seminar that outlines parents’ rights and responsibilities will arm participants with valuable information.

The seminar will feature a catechetical presentation that will help parents transmit an integrated vision of Catholic teaching on sexuality, personal dignity, marriage and human flourishing to their children.

“Our message will focus on the positive: We are all called to chastity, to use our sexual ability to love others and not use them,” said Ed Hopfner, the director of the Marriage and Family Office for the San Francisco Archdiocese. “Love does not mean sex, which is what our culture tells us.”

Valerie Schmalz, the director of the archdiocese’s Office of Human Life and Dignity, told the Register that outreach to public-school parents is crucial, especially in a state where many families struggle to cover exorbitant housing costs and cannot afford a Catholic education for their children.

“Sometimes I think we forget how many Catholic children are in the public schools,” said Schmalz.

She said the new initiative should not be viewed as “an indictment of public education” or an excuse for “wading into the culture wars.”

 “We need to help parents fulfill their God-given responsibility to educate their child. We want to give them support so they can navigate the public schools and maintain their parental rights when they don’t agree with part of the curriculum,” she said. “We are standing up for parents and children. It is our job as a Church.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.