On Tuesday night, three of five Palo Alto school board members stood by the district's selection of a new sexuality-education program, though they acknowledged what they said were some missteps in communication and transparency with parents during its implementation.
Board President Terry Godfrey, Vice President Ken Dauber and member Jennifer DiBrienza agreed that the now-controversial Teen Talk curriculum, taught to seventh-graders this spring by Redwood City nonprofit Health Connected, is appropriate, legally compliant and useful.
The district put the program in place to comply with the California Healthy Youth Act, which requires school districts to teach comprehensive sexual education at least once in middle school and once in high school. (It requires that districts educate students about different methods by which sexually transmitted infections can be transmitted and acknowledge different sexual orientations, for example.)
Parents who oppose the new curriculum maintain its content is inappropriate for seventh-graders and have called for a more in-depth, inclusive review process that would involve parents and look at other available sexual health programs.
Such a process, some board members said during the discussion-only meeting, would not yield a significantly different curriculum and would consume already scarce district resources and time.
"As I've heard people speak about their concerns with this curriculum, I don't find the concerns we've heard are specific to Health Connected," DiBrienza said. "They're actually requirements of the law."
DiBrienza and Dauber noted that many programs students are exposed to in school do not come before the school board for formal approval. Dauber said in his reading of board policy, the district can select curricula that have been vetted and approved by the state, as Health Connected's program has.
State education code also permits districts to contract with outside consultants with relevant expertise to provide comprehensive sexual health and HIV prevention education, DiBrienza noted.
A full curriculum review process would not benefit students, Dauber said.
Board members Melissa Baten Caswell and Todd Collins disagreed, arguing the district failed to follow its own policies on curriculum selection in this case, particularly by neglecting to include parents in the process. Parents complained that they had difficulty accessing the Health Connected material before it was taught to their children and that their feedback was not sought in the selection of the program.
Collins agreed, stating, "We have effectively shut off community voice in this decision."
Collins said he was "taken aback" that his three colleagues took a different position, arguing that an administrative regulation on selection and evaluation of materials requires the creation of a "curriculum steering committee with community representation" to review supplemental materials being taught at the secondary schools.
Baten Caswell said she does not support a full, yearslong curriculum-adoption process for sex ed but agreed that the administrative regulation allows for a "lightweight review" that sufficiently involves community input.
"We are never going to satisfy everybody's needs so I don't think that's the goal, but the goal for me right now is to not have this division," she said.
At Tuesday's meeting, more than 30 parents spoke both in protest and in support of the curriculum. Those in opposition argued against the district's position that the 10-hour sex ed program is supplemental rather than core curriculum. Reiterating their support for sex education in and of itself, they urged the board to launch a review process to promise greater transparency and parent involvement.
"In some aspects, sexual health education is even more impactful to a student's life than physics or chemistry lessons. … Given such importance, I would argue (the) sexual health ed program should be treated under (the) process of instructional materials instead of supplementary materials, as it is now," said one father, Han.
One mother urged the board: "Do not take the road of expedience, but take the long road of caution and form an advisory committee."
Other parents, however, said they support the curriculum as much-needed, well-timed education that goes beyond just reproductive health. Laura Prentiss, the mother of three Palo Alto Unified students, also worried that the creation of a review committee would send the message that "parent concern supersedes what research indicates is right for children." She and other parents noted that research has shown that comprehensive sex education delays rather than expedites the onset of sexual activity among youth, with other positive outcomes.
Three representatives from local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sponsored the California Healthy Youth Act, attended Tuesday's meeting and spoke in support of the curriculum.
Any effort to limit information about sexual health "constitutes censorship," said Cynthia Than, a volunteer with the ACLU of Northern California's Mid-Peninsula chapter.
"While community members have a right to advocate for changes in education, efforts to derail comprehensive sexuality education violate civil rights," she said, "and school districts have a duty to comply with the law."
Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California, said the law defines age appropriate as when young people are developmentally able to process information taught to them.
"It does not mean have they reached the age at which their parents feel comfortable with them receiving the information," she said.
Parents have the choice to opt out of any or all of the sex education program, but many said Tuesday that to do so would be to exclude their children.
Superintendent Max McGee said the district has received 400 responses to a student, parent and teacher survey on Health Connected and will bring those results to a subsequent school board meeting for further discussion. McGee also made recommendations on Tuesday to develop "specific, detailed, informational" presentations on Health Connected for parents and teachers, provide parents with full access to the curriculum materials before they are taught to students and make "clear" opt-out information available in multiple languages to parents.