Sex Ed: Just Words? The Details and Implications of the California Healthy Youth Act

n_prupis_ca_sex_ed_500x279

Source: New American Media

On October 1, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 329 into law. With the passing of AB 329—the California Healthy Youth Act—school districts are authorized to “provide comprehensive sexual health education,” using “age-appropriate” material, to elementary and high school students. The law also imposes requirements on California school districts to educate students on HIV/AIDS and provides for the adjustment of the types of textbooks and instructional materials used to do so. In-service training for personnel is another condition of the law. The state must reimburse school districts and local agencies as they put this in effect.

The law’s aim is to better inform students about their sexual and reproductive health. The provisions of the law emphasize an unbiased approach to teaching students and allow students to understand their individual sexuality, make healthy personal decisions, and develop more positive and safe relationships. What is very significant about this new law is that it is a revision to and addresses issues with a previous sexual education law, the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act, which was enacted in 2003. In reading the fine print, what is clear is that the new California Healthy Youth explicitly calls for improved accommodation of students from all backgrounds, including those who are English learners and those with disabilities, so all students may be informed about sexual health. The new law demonstrates acceptance of various sexual orientations, the need to be inclusive of same-sex relationships, and the need to make students aware of gender stereotypes and gender identities. Furthermore, the law emphasizes informing students about local resources for medical, sexual, and reproductive health care. These changes represent recognition of changes within society and reflect advancements in understanding what actions need to be taken to aid groups that have often been excluded from receiving help.

Compared to those in other states, this law seems to be a forerunner. While many states require public schools to teach about sexual health and HIV/AIDS, the current laws may not reflect informed and updated age-appropriate instruction that includes education for all social groups. Moreover, many do not emphasize a variety of topics that are related to sexual health, including building healthy relationships, communication, and awareness of sexuality as well as sexual assault and violence. Many bills that would have provided for improved instruction have failed to pass through other state governments. The California Healthy Youth Act seems to an exception.

Yet, more important than the actual passing of the law is what the law means. In a sense, this is progress. Investing in sexual health education does have an impact. Though the law makes relatively minor revisions to previous law, it is a step forward. It marks continued and increased openness to conversations about young people’s sexuality, a natural part of human life, and acknowledges a need to give California students accurate knowledge and necessary skills—the ability to make informed decisions, for example—to enter adulthood. For adolescent females, especially, the California Healthy Youth Act has the potential to inspire safer sex as it sparks greater discussion about gender roles and empowerment. In turn, this law has the potential to help curb teen pregnancy rates and rates of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. For instance, while rates of national teen pregnancy have dropped over the past couple of decades, teen pregnancy continues to linger. Teen pregnancy is linked to rates of high school dropouts, and this is economically costly, especially in the long run. This is also socially costly—high levels of teen pregnancy translates into the creation of unstable families, which often live in poverty. With sex ed, it is important not “to tell people what to do with their lives,” and young people “need to know how to do it safe, the benefits, the negative aspects,” says Xavier Salazar, Community Health Outreach Worker at a high school in San Francisco.

The new law’s provisions seem to mark progress. Even the law’s name indicates a step up from that of the previous law enacted over a decade ago. The new law, however, does not translate into a stop sign on continuing efforts. There still remain limitations. According to Salazar, overall, the law is a top-down approach to sexual education. It serves as a political statement that in many ways remains vague. How measures of the law will be fulfilled is not specifically spelled out. The act states one of its purposes is to “ensure pupils receive integrated, comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased sexual health and HIV prevention instruction.” However, the act does not elaborate on what these words actually mean and how it will enable school districts to accomplish such. How will individual school districts actually put the law into action? How will correct implementation of the law be ensured? Will schools make the necessary changes? How soon and in what way? Ideally, the answers to these questions will be reassuring. Yet, school districts and individual schools are left to find these answers. They are responsible for finding teachers with the credentials and experience. They deal with the specific logistics of what goes on in health education classrooms.

The California Healthy Youth Act “[needs to be] pushed on a school level, not just on a legislative level,” Salazar says. Schools need to be aware of and understand current limitations. Moreover, not only is there a need to teach about the subjects, but there is also a need for outreach. School districts like the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) have already taken more progressive measures. Teachers follow a planned curriculum and have contacts with guest speakers and local organizations that specialize in certain health topics. SFUSD also promotes health education through its Youth Outreach Worker (YOW) program, which empowers youth to go out and be a part of their own and other peers’ education directly. These measures are not specified in the new law, but implementation of them in schools across the state—with room for variety and flexibility—are a way to improve health education curriculum and use different tools to educate students in a variety of ways. “Sex ed” cannot just be “sex ed”—just words incorporated into a legislative law. “Sex ed” needs to educate, inform, empower, and make the changes it is said to do.