Sex Education in California Sparks Culture Clash

‘This should not be viewed as a local issue, but one that will be coming up in every school district across the country,’ said one analyst, as immigrant parents lead the fight against a hotly debated curriculum.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — A new sex-education curriculum has provoked opposition in three California school districts this year, and parent-led protests have already forced one local school board to delay its implementation.

“The new curriculum on ‘Human Growth and Development’ needs to be suspended for a major revision to reflect true human development and growth,” read a petition posted on and signed by thousands of parents in Cupertino Union School District who oppose “Teen Talk Middle School,” a curriculum published by Health Connected.

“The chosen textbook is age inappropriate and has detailed, graphic descriptions of oral, anal and vaginal sex.”

Parents in Cupertino, located about an hour and a half south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley, also targeted classroom exercises that seemed “designed to increase curiosity [regarding] different sexual behaviors in immature minds,” and on March 29, the school board agreed to suspend the sequential 12-step program.

Last week, protests against “Teen Talk” spread to the Palo Alto Unified School District, home to Stanford University, while parents in San Diego addressed the local school board on Wednesday to outline their concerns about another program that is also designed to be in compliance with curriculum goals mandated by the 2015 California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA).

The California Healthy Youth Act took effect in January 2016 and “require(s) school districts to ensure that all pupils in grades 7-12 … receive comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education,” according to the text of the law. Now, the fast-moving controversy over curricula designed to comply with the law will likely catch fire in other districts, as online petitions and “parent reviews” that document problems are shared across the state.


Parent-Led Opposition

“Condom demonstrations, gender identity, pregnancy options and resources: I kept thinking, ‘These are 12-year-olds,’” Carolina Riofrio, a Catholic mother in Palo Alto, told the Register about “Teen Talk.”

State law requires local school boards to make curriculum materials available to parents in advance of classroom instruction, but Riofrio struggled to locate the single copy of the curriculum set aside for parental review.

A meeting with the school principal to register her concerns was another source of frustration, as she was informed that the principal had not read the curriculum and would only have more information after she observed students using the curriculum for the first time.

Riofrio was also alarmed by the methodology employed in “Teen Talk” lesson plans.

Students were asked to orally respond to questions and analyze scenarios with the goal of clarifying or reassessing their own views, while religious values, judged to reflect an unacceptable “bias,” were effectively excluded, she said.

After participating in a parent workshop, she concluded that some classroom exercises would “exert pressure” on students to publicly conform to a morally-neutral position.

When she began to research the backgrounds of Health Connected staffers, Riofrio discovered that the associate director, Perryn Reis, and several others had worked for Planned Parenthood.

Riofrio’s middle-school-age daughter did not participate in the “Teen Talk” sessions, but she believes that few other students opted out of the instruction. 

Barbara Svevo, another Palo Alto parent, said she suggested that her younger daughter opt out “because the previous year her older sister had found the contents of the program quite disturbing.”

“My younger daughter did not want to opt out because she felt this would draw unwanted attention,” Svevo told the Register.

“She told me, ‘I know how to block it out.’”

Concerned parents have led the grassroots opposition to the curricula. Local churches have stayed on the sidelines, and spokesmen for the San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego Dioceses had no comment on the protests.

The California Catholic Conference took no position on the 2015 law because it allowed parents to remove their children from instruction.

“We are no longer dealing with legislation, but with implementation,” Ray Burnell, the Catholic conference’s point man on education policy, told the Register.

At this point, Burnell noted, “It is up to individual folks” in school districts to raise their concerns about specific curriculum issues.


Multi-Level Culture Clash

Thus far, news reports and anecdotal information suggest that Asian-born parents drove opposition to “Teen Talk” in Cupertino, where a large percentage of students are first-generation Americans.

Parents found “Teen Talk” to be "neither age-appropriate nor culturally sensitive for the proposed target group (11- to 13-year-olds in seventh grade, in a school district with a unique demographic)," stated a column by Cupertino parents Srividya Sundaresan and Vaishnavi Sridhar in The Mercury News

"Another disturbing aspect of this debate has been a concerted effort to brand any opposition to the 'Teen Talk' curriculum as being anti-LGBTQ.

"This conflation of parental concerns about an inappropriate curriculum with LGBTQ issues polarizes the debate by portraying Cupertino Union parents as being out of touch with their children’s needs. We are well aware of and understand our children and their needs, in a way only involved parents can possibly do," read the column.

During an interview with the Register, "Sue," a Chinese-American mother in Cupertino, echoed the sense of frustration.

“Asian people care about family values; we don’t appreciate kids being sexually active too early,” said “Sue,” who asked that her real name be withheld to avoid possible retaliation at her workplace.

“Sue” blamed the school district for failing to bring parents into the textbook-review process and for doing a poor job of highlighting the “opt out” provision.

Parents like her are also angry about the role of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has already notified Cupertino’s school board that it could face legal action if its schools were not in compliance with state law.

A previous lawsuit filed against Fresno’s Clovis Unified School District resulted in a payout of $450,000 in attorneys’ fees to the ACLU and pro bono lawyers, after a federal court ruled in 2015 that the district’s abstinence-based curriculum violated “the letter of the 2004 Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education law.”

While Cupertino parents who oppose the curriculum are relieved that “Teen Talk” has been suspended, they recognize that an alternative textbook must also include mandated instruction on preventing the spread of HIV and other diseases that can be sexually transmitted, as well as information on homosexual relationships and gender-identity issues.

Defenders of  “Teen Talk” argue that explicit details about sexual acts are needed to show how sexually transmitted diseases can be spread. Thus, the question is whether a different program can provide this required information without including inappropriate or suggestive information that will be damaging to students.

Parents who have become involved in the issue will continue to make their voices heard. But “Sue” also noted that they have to be careful about how they critique new programs and advocate for change.

“You have to be politically correct and cannot discuss sexual orientation, or you could be denounced,” she charged.

The unexpected confrontation with the school district was a wake-up call for Chinese and Indian parents who had little exposure to American-style culture wars, she said.

In her experience, recent arrivals from China generally “trust the [local] government because they come from countries that were oppressive, and they think democratic values are so nice.”

Now, parents are asking, “How can you do this to my kids?


Planned Parenthood’s Mark

The uphill battle to suspend the curriculum marks a striking clash of cultures, one that pits progressive activists and educators against parents and teachers who adhere to more traditional beliefs about the meaning and purpose of sex and marriage.

“All of our old curriculum … videos were very heterosexual-oriented,” Cupertino teacher Kristina Everhardt told CBS San Francisco in remarks that endorsed “Teen Talk” and echoed the rhetoric that accompanied recent debates over same-sex “marriage” and bathroom rights for “transgender” students.

“Not just heterosexual-oriented, but very male-female. One of our movies, literally, that I showed in seventh grade last year, implied that boys were only looking for sex, and girls needed to protect their virginity.”

Reacting to Everhardt’s public comments, “Sue” shot back: “What’s wrong with girls protecting their virginity?”

A predominantly liberal state like California may be expected to embrace the latest sexual mores in its classroom instruction. But analysts warn that the culture clash in Silicon Valley school districts has already surfaced in other states, where organizations like Planned Parenthood are playing a critical role in curriculum development.


Preparing Parents

“Parents are not prepared for an agenda that redefines love as a feeling and sex as a way to show affection,” said Bill May, the California-based president of Catholics for the Common Good, a lay apostolate for the evangelization of culture that also sponsors The Marriage Reality Movement.

“This should not be viewed as a local issue, but one that will be coming up in every school district across the country — an agenda to redefine love, marriage and family — and now man and woman.”

Coleen Mast, the founder of “LoveEd,” a new curriculum, available in August, that helps parents share scientific and religious truths with their children, said Catholics should be more proactive about addressing poorly designed curricula that threatens the well-being of their children.

“When a child is exposed to premature or perverted sexual information, it disintegrates” his or her understanding of God’s plan for love, said Mast, quoting insights she culled from a conference hosted by the Pontifical Council for the Family.

In this context, the child may view human sexuality “as gross and not a gift from God.”

If a parent is worried about a curriculum, Mast added, “Take the child out of the class, then empower the child with the truths of science, Christian anthropology and theology, so they can see God’s plan written within the human body.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.