SACRAMENTO, Calif — California is close to overhauling its guidance for teaching sex education in public schools, offering teachers a framework for talking to kindergarteners about gender identity, discussing masturbation with middle-schoolers and recommending books that teach healthy practices for LGBT high schoolers.
The proposal the California State Board of Education is scheduled to consider Wednesday offers advice on teaching health topics including nutrition, injury prevention and alcohol and tobacco use. But it's the part about sex that has angered some parents and conservative groups and is expected to bring a large crowd to the meeting.
"This stuff should be taught at home," said Stephanie Yates, a mother of three who started a Facebook group to protest the changes. "It's not the birds and the bees. It's not biological anymore. It's not sex ed. It's sexuality education."
But that's exactly why many parents support the changes, according to Samuel Garret-Pate, communications director for Equality California.
"Too often LGBTQ students in particular don't receive information during sex education that teaches them about healthy practices," he said. "There is nothing obscene about providing accurate and comprehensive information to students at an age-appropriate level about how to have safe sex."
California's education standards tell school districts what students should know about a particular subject at the end of every grade level. The state's curriculum framework gives teachers ideas on how to do that. The state updated its health education standards in 2008. But because of a budget crisis, state officials never gave schools a framework for how to teach them.
That could change Wednesday when the California State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on a major revision to its health education curriculum framework.
The more-than-700-page document compiled over three years does not require schools to teach anything, but it is designed to expose teachers to current research about health education and give guidance about how to teach it. It's also influenced by a 2015 state law that made California one of the first states to address LGBT issues as part of sex education.
The framework tells teachers that students in kindergarten can identify as transgender and offers tips for how to talk about that, adding "the goal is not to cause confusion about the gender of the child but to develop an awareness that other expressions exist."
"I think that people hear the word 'transgender' or 'gender identity' in guidance for kindergarten through grade three and they think the worst," said Stephanie Gregson, director of the Curriculum Frameworks and Instructional Resources Division at the California Department of Education. "It's really about civil rights issues, understanding that each and every one of our students have rights and our students come in all different shapes, sizes and unique personalities and characteristics and we need to value and respect every one of those differences."
The framework gives tips for discussing masturbation with middle-schoolers, including telling them it is not physically harmful, and for discussing puberty with transgender teens that creates "an environment that is inclusive and challenges binary concepts about gender."
Much of the pushback has focused not on the framework itself, but on the books it recommends students read. One suggested book for high schoolers is "S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties." It includes descriptions of anal sex, bondage and other sexual activity — depictions California Family Council President Jonathan Keller described as "obscene."
"The state of California is really forcing parents to choose between what the state says is the universal right to free public education and their children's innocence," Keller said.
Gregson said state officials recommended the book because "it's an award-winning book that speaks to all of the different types of relationships that our students are engaging in."
"We have gay and lesbian and transgender high school students that are in relationships," she said. "Resources help them navigate those types of relationships."