The five Bishop Unified School District Board members voted 4-1 to approve the Sexual Education Health Curriculum in its regular meeting held on Thursday, May 18, at the Home Street Middle School auditorium. Not surprisingly, the lone dissenting vote came from school board member Josh Nicholson.
The change in venue for the board meeting over to the middle school auditorium was made in anticipation of a larger than normal crowd. Most board meetings are lightly attended, but this meeting had 200 or more participants due to the interest generated by the topic—sex education. The normal cap for public comment time (20-minutes) was scrapped and everyone who had something to say was given two minutes to do so.
For three long hours, a total of 60 people (parents, grandparents, and “other adults”) gave public comment. There were 33 speakers unambiguously in favor of the curriculum, while 5 or 6 speakers seemed somewhat ambiguous—which is to say, “Who knows what they were actually saying or meant?” Some of them were undecided about what the board should decide. Then there were the 20 or so people who clearly opposed the curriculum for a variety of reasons.
Some people threatened legal action against the board members and the educators who teach the curriculum if the board approved it, claiming they are exposing children to “the legal definition of pornography” or accusing educators of “grooming and sexualizing children” for “elites” in the country and government. The QAnon spirit appeared alive and well in a few of the speakers. Some threatened that they will pull their children out of the public schools…or bragged that they already had. Some invoked “Jesus” or “God” or “Biblical Scripture”. Some parents were interested in being able to “opt” out of certain selected portions of the curriculum. Others favored a better method for the “opt-out” procedure currently being used, which appears to have some issues. There were a few speakers that used the opportunity to debase and dehumanize the LGBT+ community, but not all that many, and it appeared to receive little traction with the crowd. Not everyone had the same reasons for opposing the curriculum, which just made things more interesting. A few times it got “loud” as people reacted to some comments, but it was quickly brought under control by board chair Stephen Elias with a quick rap of the gavel and strict warnings. The meeting was never really out of control.
In the end, after three hours of sitting on the most uncomfortable bench seating imaginable (made with children in mind, not adults); the board deliberations finally arrived – although most of it was board members having to listen to the monotonous droning of Nicholson voice reading parts of what turned out to be outdated law text. It was a miracle that anyone was still awake for the decision.
Sex Education curriculum is required by California state law in every public school district under the Healthy Youth Act 2016 (CHYA). Those requirements (under California Education Code [ EC] sections 51930–51939) are that:
All school districts (will) ensure that all students in grades seven through twelve, inclusive, receive comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education.
And it is very comprehensive. It covers a wide range of discussions. It includes fact-based information on sexual orientation, gender identification, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and it also addresses HIV treatment, contraception, decision-making skills, and sex trafficking.
That comprehensive education includes support for the development of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in eight overarching standards: (1) essential health concepts; (2) analyzing health influences; (3) accessing valid health information; (4) interpersonal communication; (5) decision making; (6) goal setting; (7) practicing health-enhancing behaviors; and (8) health promotion in six content areas of health education: nutrition and physical activity; growth, development, and sexual health; injury prevention and safety; alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; mental, emotional, and social health; and personal and community health.
The curriculum was developed for BUSD in partnership with the Inyo County Office of Education (ICOE). Illissa Twomey and Karen Kong (both of whom work for ICOE) explained to the board and those in attendance how the curriculum was developed, along with how it is currently being taught in Bishop schools. ICOE used the curriculum guidelines provided by Advocates’ for Youth, a very large, nonprofit organization network and advocacy group dedicated to sexuality education, prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted disease, teenage pregnancy prevention, youth access to condoms and contraception (including emergency contraception), equality for LGBT youth, and youth participation. They attempt to change societal norms to be more understanding of, accepting of, and responsible about youth sexuality and to drive youth sexual health equity.
Therein lies the problem with the Sex Education Curriculum for many in opposition; it is a progressive educational approach that celebrates equality, better equity in outcomes, facts-over-misinformation-and-myths, inclusiveness, and diversity. It is an approach that rankles and threatens ultra-conservative Christian church groups (e.g., Evangelicals, Christian Nationalists); political groups (mostly far right-wing conservatives such as many “Trump” Republicans, and Christian Nationalists), and individuals who resist change on moralistic or traditional values that have long held sway over the role of sexuality in society and culture of the past…which largely no longer exists. Yet, this is an issue typical of our times.
Some opposition speakers seemed to take delight in talking about “masturbation”, “oral sex”, and “anal sex” to “shock” those attending, although it did not seem particularly effective on most of those present. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that “it is what it is” and not necessarily a sign of the pending Apocalypse, which some seem to believe. At times during the meeting, it did seem that maybe the “End of Times” would arrive before the meeting ended.
Those speaking in support of the curriculum said that it could save lives and that knowledge is powerful. Some mentioned how the internet is everywhere, and parents have little or no control over their child’s access to it and the bad influences, among which is pornography. Yet other rationales were that “everyone will eventually have sex” and that “abstinence is unrealistic.” The reduction of teen pregnancies was mentioned several times, especially by several local doctors and medical professionals, that spoke in favor of the curriculum. And then there is this simple observation: Many parents are uncomfortable, even embarrassed, discussing sex with their children. So, “Why not have experienced professional educators do it?”
Board Chair Steve Elias, made the point that the board decided that the curriculum was the right one based on their review of it, and on the advice of their hired consultants. It was deemed “appropriate to the community,” and he noted that it had “flexibility and choice” built in: Parents can opt out of the curriculum if they feel it is inappropriate for their child. He expressed confidence in the district’s educators, noting that they can “always go back and clean-up the program.”
As with many controversial or contentious public events, demonstrations, and meetings in Inyo County, the people in this area are generally unfailingly polite and respectful of others, which is a good thing. This was an especially sensitive and complex topic for public discussion, and it is a credit to the parents and the community that it took place and went as well as it did.