Who would have thought that in 2017 Palo Alto parents would find themselves in a debate over sex education?
For the last two months a passionate and persistent group of concerned parents, consisting mostly of Chinese-Americans, has organized a campaign to reverse the school district's adoption of new sex-education curriculum it believes encourages teen sexual activity and other unhealthy behavior and exposes seventh-graders to information some are not yet ready to hear.
While the parents insist they are supportive of "age-appropriate" sex education, their vocal objections to a program praised and supported by professional educators and reviewed by the state Department of Education has surfaced tricky questions about cultural differences within the parent community and how the public school system should handle such diversity of values when adopting district policy. They also raise legitimate questions about whether the district failed to follow its own procedures, including those that emphasize parent involvement in curriculum adoptions.
The focus of the parent concern is a 10-hour school unit that was implemented this spring for all seventh-graders by educators from Health Connected, a Redwood City-based nonprofit that has a long track record of developing sex-education materials and delivering them in school districts throughout the Bay Area. Palo Alto has worked with Health Connected for more than 10 years.
The sex-ed curriculum was revised and strengthened this year to meet the requirements of a new state law that took effect last year. That law, the California Healthy Youth Act, requires more comprehensive sex education for middle and high school students designed 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" and to "develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage and family."
A Palo Alto parent social-media campaign opposing the use of the curriculum erupted at the end of March after some parents became aware of a similar controversy in the Cupertino school district and began asking questions about the curriculum.
Since then dozens of speakers have used the "open forum" speaking opportunity at every recent school board meeting to express their unhappiness, often taking up more than an hour of meeting time and derailing other school business. Email campaigns have flooded the in-boxes of school board members.
In addition to objecting to the age appropriateness of the curriculum, parents took aim at the lack of parent involvement as is required by district policy for new major curriculum adoptions such as math or science.
On Tuesday, the school board finally addressed the matter on its agenda by discussing a recommendation by Superintendent Max McGee that the district improve its outreach to parents on the curriculum but not undertake the new review process being advocated by the concerned parents.
We agree with board members Terry Godfrey, Ken Dauber and Jennifer DiBrienza that a "reset" is neither necessary nor in the best interest of the community or students. The new curriculum, which was developed by a respected organization to meet the requirements of the new law, was found compliant by the state Department of Education and appropriate by district teachers. It has now also been the subject of substantially more public discussion than it would ever receive through any new committee process.
Trustees Todd Collins and Melissa Baten Caswell are also correct in pointing out that the issue was mishandled by district administrators and probably violated the district's own procedures for involving the public.
School officials should have anticipated some parent concern, publicized the issue and made the materials readily reviewable long ago. They should have held an information session for the board and public at a school board meeting last fall and presented a staff recommendation for approval by the board.
In a classic example of bad district-community communications, even today, after all the controversy, a search on the district website for "sex education" brings up no information. For a district with a full-time communications coordinator, there is no excuse for not making information on a current controversial school issue easily available on the web.
But one failure should not lead to another, and there are far too many more important issues facing our school district than to go through the motions of a months-long review process of 10 hours of curriculum that will add little or nothing to what has already been brought to light.