Mountain View Whisman school board members signaled loud and clear that children shouldn't leave elementary school without learning basic facts about puberty, sexual development and other critical sex education topics that have sparked controversy in some Bay Area school districts.
With little discussion and no hesitation, trustees unanimously agreed at the Nov. 16 board meeting to continue teaching a health education unit called "Puberty Talk" to all fifth-grade students, calling it age-appropriate and better suited for elementary school where students feel more comfortable broaching sensitive sex education topics. The board's decision reverses plans by district staff to drop Puberty Talk in the spring, following complaints from parents who argued that the co-ed environment and advanced topics could be problematic for kids who are as young as 10 years old.
Mountain View Whisman began teaching the new sex education curriculum, developed and taught by the Redwood City nonprofit Health Connected, in the 2015-16 school year in order to comply with a new state law called the California Healthy Youth Act. The law requires school districts to provide comprehensive, up-to-date information on sexual health as well as HIV prevention, and was seen as landmark legislation that put all school districts on the same page when it comes to sex education.
Even within the Mountain View Whisman school district, each school used to tackle sexual health differently, and lessons were "delivered inconsistently" as the burden fell on the teachers -- without any professional development -- to teach the sensitive topics, said Assistant Superintendent Cathy Baur. She called the California Healthy Youth Act a "very good bill," in part because families must opt-out rather than opt-in to the lessons.
After fifth grade, the district next offers sex ed in eighth grade through the "Teen Talk" program, which delves into topics like pregnancy, birth control, consent, gender and sexual orientation as well as reducing "misinformation and myths about sexual health topics," according to a district FAQ. Each year parents are given the opportunity to look through the teaching materials and attend parent nights to ask questions and express concerns.
But going into the Nov. 16 board meeting, district staff were fully prepared to ditch Puberty Talk after a group of parents raised concerns about lessons they claimed were an ill-fit for elementary school children, particularly teaching how diseases like HIV are transmitted.
"Our current plan is not to offer the program for our fifth-graders," Baur said.
Instead, Baur said the district would pilot a new sex education program in fifth-grade classrooms next year, and provide a belated version of Puberty Talk to sixth-grade students who had missed out on the program in the spring.
The opt-out rate was also a factor in deciding to go back to the drawing board, said Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph. A total of 29 families chose to pull their child out of Puberty Talk during the 2016-17 school year -- about 5 percent of the 570 fifth-grade students in the district -- prompting the district to search for a more agreeable curriculum.
"A couple parents were upset, and we understand that there are parents who opt out. It's not a high number, but are there other options within the state and within the county," Rudolph said.
The idea didn't win support among either school board trustees or members of the public at the meeting, who gave resounding support for fifth-grade sex education.
District parent Adam Berry told board members that he was "dismayed" that students -- including his own child at Huff Elementary -- may not have a chance to learn about human growth and development at a school that she's attended for six years and sees as a safe environment. Adding exposure to sex education on top of the myriad of other new experiences introduced at the middle-school level would be "overwhelming and irresponsible," Berry said.
"(Students) talk, and there's misinformation and lack of information," he said. "The sooner we're able to discuss this with them the better."
District parent Elizabeth Eaton said parents could try to teach sex education at home in fifth grade in lieu of Puberty Talk, but kids may not be willing to ask their parents questions about uncomfortable topics. Schools also play an important role in reinforcing what students learn at home, and it's important to present that information when they are around friends and trusted adults.
"I think it does a real disservice to our entire community to put this off for our children," Eaton said.
Board member Ellen Wheeler said all of the feedback she heard from parents leading up to the meeting, both by email and personal contact, came down in favor of providing Puberty Talk in fifth grade. She said the district should not put sex education off for a year, and ought to provide the experience in the "smaller elementary school environment" instead of waiting until sixth grade.
The state's sex education landscape is currently in an awkward transition phase of its own. The California Healthy Youth Act requires school districts to provide comprehensive, medically accurate education on sexual health, but the state has yet to finish revisions to its Health Education Framework, which dates back to 2008. If the district convenes a Pilot Assessment Review Committee (PARC) to find an alternative to Health Connected for fifth grade, it could take years.
"I don't want to waste time going down the rabbit hole when we might have to reinvent the wheel again," said board member Laura Blakely. "I don't see any reason to convene a PARC this year when there isn't a (state) curriculum."
In other school districts, it was the middle-school curriculum -- Teen Talk -- that drew a firestorm of parental opposition. An online petition circulated by parents in the Palo Alto Unified School District earlier this year claimed that Teen Talk amounted to "sex seduction" that was neither age appropriate nor culturally appropriate, and that opting out was not a solution. A similar opposition campaign in Cupertino in March led to a failed vote by the board of trustees to adopt Teen Talk.
The reaction was close to the opposite in the Mountain View Whisman School District.
"We didn't really hear much at all from families about Teen Talk, which is why we decided to keep giving it," Baur told board members. "Our teachers are very much in favor of it -- they really liked it."