MARY REICHARD, HOST: Well, you just heard about the direction of national sex- education standards, but next up on The World and Everything in It, a very different approach by the state of California.
Three years ago, state lawmakers passed a law called the California Healthy Youth Act. And as you might guess, some of it is controversial. One example is a requirement that local schools promote—quote—“healthy attitudes” about “gender and sexual orientation” in their sex-ed curriculum.
NICK EICHER, HOST: California school districts are still trying to figure out how to implement these new requirements. And last month, some media outlets reported an alarming development: Parents in Orange County no longer can excuse their children from public school sex-ed classes that address gender and sexual orientation.
REICHARD: California is often the incubator for social change in the U.S., so this story has the potential to have a ripple effect. WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson lives and works in Orange County, and she’s here now with details.
First of all, Jill, tell us about this new development. Is it really as bad as it sounds?
JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Mary, I’m happy to report that in this case it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Let me give a little bit of context: These media reports began to circulate after some confusion about a memo written by the Orange County Department of Education’s general counsel. And he was attempting to clarify that 2015 law for the board.
And the end of the memo does say that parents cannot excuse their student from discussions related to gender identity, but you have to read the first part of the memo to understand the point he’s trying to make, which is this: Parents can still excuse their student from any or all sex ed, but anything related to gender identity that does not discuss human reproductive organs and their functions just does not qualify for an opt-out.
And I was able to confirm this with Ian Hanigan from the Orange County Department of Education.
HANIGAN: The law makes it clear that parents can opt out of comprehensive sex education. So depending on the curriculum, districts choose their curriculum, districts have locally elected boards and superintendents and community stakeholders who make those decisions, but the law specifically states that parents and guardians have the ultimate responsibility for imparting values regarding human sexuality to their children.
The example Ian gave of a discussion that does not qualify for an opt-out, a social studies lesson on the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.
REICHARD: Aha. So students can still opt out of sex-ed classes. But what happens if parents want to excuse their son or daughter from an activity or discussion related to sexual orientation that’s not part of the sex-ed program? This memo makes it sound like parents cannot excuse their student.
NELSON: Well, the wording of the memo can cause some alarm unless you understand that murky realm of excused and unexcused absences. So, in our district, Capistrano Unified, visiting Grandma is not excused. Illness is. And a flat tire is not an excused tardy, but a doctor appointment is excused.
And sex ed is usually put into kind of its own special category of excused absences. So, in middle school parents are notified, a letter is sent home, I was actually able to get ahold of the letter our district just sent home to parents of seventh-graders last week. And the school offers an opportunity to come preview the sex ed. There is usually an alternate activity or assignment that is provided. And for any subject matter, let’s say outside of sex ed, maybe it’s an assembly or a discussion, of course you can always go check your student out of school at any point, but what you tell the attendant’s office will determine what goes on their record and of course you don’t want to accrue too many unexcused absences or you have to answer to the county.
REICHARD: What should parents of public school students be concerned about as it pertains to the implementations of this law?
NELSON: Well, Orange County parents, really, I don’t think need to be concerned about this memo. But they should be diligently watching to see how the California Healthy Youth Act is applied in their districts.
So, if you have a student in a K-through-8 charter school, there’s typically no sex-ed requirements there, even though these schools do get some district funding. But sex ed in public school is mandatory, once in middle school (usually seventh grade) and once in high school (typically your freshman year health class).
And right now parents and teachers in a number of districts, not just Orange County, are really up in arms over some of the proposed sex ed courses that meet these new state requirements. For example, in April our district just threw out one of the proposed curriculums called the Health Connected Teen Talk. And, according to local news reports, teachers just said they were not comfortable teaching it. And if you take a look at it, you can see why. So, our board determined it didn’t align with our community’s values. A lot of parents were there expressing their concerns and so our district is writing its own curriculum.
So bottom line, if you have a student in a public school, you’ll want to stay on top of this and see what curriculum your district approves. Keep in mind it has to align with the new laws coming down from Sacramento, and make sure you just check it out for yourself and, yes, your student can always opt out of it.
REICHARD: Parental diligence is required at all times. Jill Nelson is a correspondent for WORLD. She’s based in Southern California. Jill, thanks for explaining this to us.
NELSON: Thank you, Mary.