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By Emily Bazar

California schools are revamping their lesson plans to comply with a new state law that requires them to teach a sex education program at least once in middle school and once in high school.

Previously, districts were required to teach HIV prevention, but sex education was not required.

“Over 90 percent of schools were teaching some sex education, but because it wasn’t mandated, certain elements were slipping through the cracks,” said Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director for the ACLU of Northern California.

“This bill creates a consistent, unified way that sex education and HIV education is taught in the classroom.”

The law, which took effect in January, requires the curriculum to include discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex trafficking, as well as information about contraception and HIV treatment.

“This law has kind of caught up with the times that we live in,” said Keith Bray, general counsel for the California School Boards Association. “It’s 2016. The law reflects some awareness as to lifestyles and additional tolerance where it’s needed.”

The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), bolstered previous curriculum requirements and added new ones. Instruction must:

  • Be age appropriate and medically accurate, and may not promote religious doctrine.
  • Recognize different sexual orientations and include same-sex relationships when providing examples of couples.
  • Include information about all FDA-approved methods of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Address gender identity, sexual assault, relationship abuse and sex trafficking.
  • Describe abstinence as the only certain way to prevent pregnancy, HIV and other STIs. However, abstinence-only instruction is not permitted.

Parents or guardians must be notified that their child will receive this instruction and be allowed to see the course materials in advance. The law allows them to opt out with a written request.

Because the bill was just signed into law last fall, districts are scrambling to comply.

“This will be a process, probably over the next six to eight months, when districts will catch up with the Legislature,” Bray said.

Some school officials have reached out to the San Francisco Unified School District, which a few years ago created a high school sex education curriculum called “Be Real. Be Ready.”

With some minor exceptions, that curriculum already meets the law’s requirements, said Christopher Pepper, the district’s health project coordinator.

“We make the curriculum available for other educators to use for free,” he said. “I know some teachers in Marin County are now using it.”

The San Francisco district is working to bring its middle school offerings into compliance, he said. The high school curriculum is taught as a separate, one-semester course, while middle schoolers get sex ed from science or physical education teachers.

“Sometimes, there’s just not time to fit in enough of those lessons,” Pepper said. “We’re working with middle schools to expand the number of lessons.”

Before the law, the Fresno Unified School District’s high school sex ed curriculum included six lessons taught in biology class, said Elisa Messing, director of curriculum, instruction and professional learning. This year, it has hired the group Fresno Barrios Unidos to teach four additional lessons to bring the curriculum into compliance.

At the middle school level, the district is training teachers to incorporate the new topics into the lessons they already teach, and it may consider contracting out to supplement middle school instruction in the future, Messing said.

“This is Beta year, we’re learning,” she said.

Barrios Unidos will start teaching lessons this week, the first of 183 presentations it expects to make by the end of the school year at 14 high schools, said executive director Socorro Santillan.

“Some parents and teachers think we’re giving the students this information because we want them to be sexually active,” she said. “But we’re giving them information they’re going to need to be able to thrive in their communities. For some students, the fastest way to end a college education is through an unintended pregnancy.”

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