Palo Alto Unified middle school students learned about human reproduction, abstinence and healthy relationships this spring in a new sex-education program that now has some of their parents threatening legal action if the school district doesn't take steps to address what they say is age-inappropriate, graphic and even harmful content.
The Palo Alto school district asked Redwood City nonprofit Health Connected, which has for about six years trained the high schools' Living Skills teachers as well as district nurses in sexual health education, to teach its curriculum to seventh-graders this year.
The school district added the seventh-grade curriculum after a state law was updated with more comprehensive requirements around sex education for public schools and took effect last January. The California Healthy Youth Act requires districts to educate students about sexual health and HIV prevention at least once in middle school and once in high school. Previously, districts were only mandated to provide HIV-prevention education in middle and high school, though middle school science teachers in Palo Alto Unified said they have long taught their own sexual-health curriculum.
Using a single curriculum -- Health Connected's -- "ensure(s) consistency of information to all students" and compliance with the updated law, the district said in a statement. The district's single-year contract with Health Connected totals $55,600, which includes both elementary and middle school programs. (The high school sex ed is taught within the Living Skills class.)
While concerned parents said they support sex education, they argue that specific elements of Health Connected's middle school materials are encouraging rather than preventing risky behaviors, such as underage drinking and sex, and encroach on deeply held family values.
They have also criticized the district's process for selecting the program as hasty and unrepresentative, with no parent involvement, and have asked for a more thorough vetting process akin to the one required for adoption of a full curriculum such as mathematics.
"This is about the family," Erica Cai, one of several Palo Alto Unified parents who started an online petition calling for the curriculum's removal, told the Weekly in an interview. "This makes a lot of people feel like their parental right to educate their kids has been infringed upon."
Parent outcry has been gaining steam in Palo Alto over the last two weeks in the wake of similar uproar in the Cupertino school district, where last month the school board ultimately reached a 2-2 stalemate on whether to adopt Health Connected’s middle school program, called Teen Talk.
After Palo Alto parents saw this, the issue "started brewing inside the Chinese community" and spread beyond it over spring break, said Fang Mei, the father of a seventh-grader at JLS Middle School.
Parents formed a group and started gathering information about the topic before launching the petition, which has since collected about 1,200 signatures. The parents leading the effort have told the district that they will "resort to immediate legal action" if the district continues to offer Teen Talk in the middle schools. (The 10-hour program has already been taught to seventh-graders at Terman and JLS and is still in process at Jordan Middle School.)
The school district maintains Health Connected's curriculum is necessary, both for the district's legal compliance and for students' education and well-being and does not intend to stop teaching it this year.
Parents have been informed since before Teen Talk started that they have the option to opt out of some or all of the curriculum. Out of the close to 400 participating students at JLS, 17 opted out, according to the district. Of 239 Terman students, three did not participate. The number of opt-outs at Jordan is not yet available since the program has not been completed yet.
"I think it’s our responsibility to follow the law, to provide the education by trained professionals and to let parents opt out," said Superintendent Max McGee, who also said he respects families’ values.
Curriculum seeks to be comprehensive
The California Healthy Youth Act states that sex education must be "integrated, comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased" as well as age appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive of all genders, races and sexual orientations. The law aims to provide students "with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect their sexual and reproductive health from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and from unintended pregnancy" as well as to "develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family."
The California Department of Education has purposefully not endorsed any one curriculum, according to Health Connected, to allow local school districts to select one that best fits their community.
The state agency, along with public and adolescent health experts, did conduct a review of 11 middle and high school sex-education programs across the state, including Health Connected, to determine their compliance with the new legal requirements.
The review found no "major" compliance issues with Health Connected's programs. The nonprofit said it has addressed all "minor modifications" identified through the review, which is posted on the Health Connected's website.
Teen Talk uses interactive activities, group discussions and homework assignments in 12 sessions over the course of two to three weeks. The first activity of the course asks students to walk to one side of the room, each labeled "agree" or "disagree" in response to statements like, "All young people should learn how to cook, clean, and do laundry, regardless of their gender" and "You should be in love with a person before you have sex with them." They discuss the statements as a class.
In Palo Alto middle schools, Teen Talk has been taught mostly in science classrooms. Trained sexual health educators employed by the nonprofit teach the curriculum, with students' regular teachers present in the classroom.
Open communication with parents about these topics is emphasized throughout the program, as required by law, including with a two-day homework assignment in which students are sent home to conduct a "parent interview" from a set of questions on sexual health-related topics.
Risky behaviors, like underage drinking or nonconsensual sex, are raised in a preventative light to help young people "put knowledge into practice in a safe and facilitated space before they encounter similar situations outside the classroom," Health Connected Executive Director Abi Karlin-Resnick wrote in an online FAQ posted Thursday in response to parents’ concerns in Palo Alto.
"It's a little bit counterintuitive for parents to understand that providing more information doesn't actually encourage the behavior," Karlin-Resnick said in an interview. "It actually prevents the behavior."
But petitioning parents disagree. The examples "encourage the feeling that sex is the norm at this age," Margaret Chai Money wrote on the online petition. "I understand some young people will experiment and believe information is important … but I don't think the scenario situations are necessary."
Karlin-Resnick noted that those specific scenarios, including one that describes a 17-year-old and 18-year-old having sex after drinking at a party, are part of an optional, additional activity that most Palo Alto Unified students didn't participate in.
An instructor guide notes that some subject matter in these scenarios (which draw from real teenagers' first sexual experiences) might be "too mature" for some students and advises educators to "choose the stories most appropriate for your community and class." The nonprofit will make minor adjustments based on feedback from students’ regular classroom teachers but typically pushes back on any requests to change the core lessons, Karlin-Resnick said.
Health Connected’s intention, she added, is to train classroom teachers in Palo Alto so they could eventually teach the curriculum rather than the outside instructors.
In response to parent concerns about the specific scenarios activity, Health Connected decided not to offer it at Jordan.
Parents also took issue with the fact that Teen Talk asks students to define three types of sex — vaginal, oral and anal — as part of a lesson on abstinence. Karlin-Resnick said this is included because the law requires any curriculum to explain all methods by which people can contract sexually transmitted infections and to be inclusive of all sexual orientations. Instruction must include, under the California Healthy Youth Act, information about "the manner in which HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are and are not transmitted, including information on the relative risk of infection according to specific behaviors, including sexual activities and injection drug use."
Defining all three types of sex also expands the definition of abstinence, Karlin-Resnick said.
A middle school teacher and parent who asked to remain anonymous said she found the Health Connected curriculum to be age appropriate and not significantly different from what has been taught in the district for many years.
Complaints about how curriculum was adopted
Middle school parents first learned about the Teen Talk program in January, when school principals sent messages informing them that their children would be getting the curriculum that spring. The district later said the materials had been "fully vetted" by principals and the district's chief academic officers.
The school board was not involved in this review, as it would be in a typical curriculum adoption. McGee said "board approval was not required" given the nature of the Teen Talk program — a unit of instruction delivered by an outside agency with no textbook nor grades over the course of eight to 10 hours, rather than a full-fledged course.
Parents, however, argue that the district violated its own policies on curriculum adoption. A board policy on selection and evaluation of instructional materials states the superintendent should establish a review process that involves teachers in a "substantial manner" and also "encourage(s) the participation of parents/guardians and community members."
In Cupertino, a task force with teachers, parents, administrators and one student worked for several months before recommending the implementation of Teen Talk. Karlin-Resnick said going through a significant adoption process is the exception rather the norm in school districts the nonprofit has worked with.
Parents have also decried a lack of transparency in the process. The principals' message in January provided contact information for a Health Connected staff member for parents who had further questions or who wanted to review the materials themselves. Districts are legally required to allow parents to view materials prior to instruction.
Access to Health Connected's 308-page curriculum, however, parents said, was insufficient, with one physical copy made available but not to all of the middle schools initially. It is now available at all three sites, according to Karlin-Resnick. Health Connected has said it cannot post its entire curriculum online for proprietary reasons but is considering creating a parent guide that could be more widely accessible.
Health Connected also hosted parent-information sessions at each middle school and two free workshops before beginning the classroom lessons. Some parents who are critical of the curriculum and attended a session told the Weekly that Health Connected staff didn’t fully explain the content, and thus the parents said they saw no red flags at the time.
The principals also notified parents of their right to opt out. (Students who did so went to the library for an alternative lesson on plant and animal reproduction.)
Even parents who vehemently oppose the curriculum said opting out is not an option, however.
"To protect our kids is not to tell us to opt out," Cai said. "That is not right to me."
The district said it will collect feedback about Teen Talk from parents, teachers and students from all three middle schools once the program finishes at Jordan. This summer, staff will work "to make revisions and/or explore other programs that meet legal requirements and provide important factual information on the key topics," McGee wrote in a weekly memo on Friday. Staff will seek additional feedback from teachers, parents, and board members as part of that process, he said.
Parents said they're looking to spur long-term change — an age- and culturally appropriate sex education program that will benefit future students — and hope to accomplish that in partnership with the district.
But in a letter sent to McGee and board members on Monday, parents noted that legal action could be on the horizon. In Cupertino, parents have apparently consulted with The Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based legal nonprofit that specializes "in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties," its website states. A staff attorney submitted a legal opinion to the Cupertino school board and spoke on parents' behalf at that meeting, according to a press release from the nonprofit.
When asked if the Palo Alto parents had spoken with a lawyer, Cai refused to comment.
"The most important thing is the health and well-being of our students and then the parental right to education for the kids," she said. "We feel like this (has been) infringed upon and continually ignored."