Nan Austin

Sex-ed materials need more than a switch to digital

Scouts prepare their flags before leading marchers in the 41st annual Pride Parade in June 2015 in Seattle, not long after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said gay couples can marry anywhere in the country.
Scouts prepare their flags before leading marchers in the 41st annual Pride Parade in June 2015 in Seattle, not long after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said gay couples can marry anywhere in the country. Associated Press file

Modesto City Schools just considered new DVDs for its fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade health videos on family life and sex education to dump VHS tapes they no longer have enough VCRs to play.

But not only the technological format needs an update.

Modesto trustees in 2002 picked elementary films as part of their abstinence-only Sex Can Wait program adopted earlier, which remains the guiding policy of the district, said Marla Mack, senior director for elementary education services. Mack and a committee of parents, teachers and trustees found the replacements for VHS tapes no longer available in their original versions.

A 2007 study by Mathematica Policy Research for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found abstinence education had no discernible impact on teens’ sexual behavior. Compared to kids who had no sex ed at all, those receiving abstinence-only education on average initiated sex at the same age, had a similar number of partners and had unprotected sex at the same rates.

Abstinence-only sex education was ruled insufficient in a 2015 ruling by Fresno Superior Court Judge Donald Black – American Academy of Pediatrics v the Clovis Unified School District. The Clovis program gave no information on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, despite high numbers of teen cases, and its materials compared a woman who was not a virgin to a dirty shoe, argued the American Civil Liberties Union of California, which brought the case.

The Clovis case relied on California’s 2003 law requiring that sexual health education in public schools be comprehensive, medically accurate, science-based, and bias-free. The latest by-grade standards were posted in 2008. The 2008 standards stretched health education to include emotional and social aspects of health, aiming to reduce risky choices and improve school behavior, including bullying. Increasing notice was paid to rising rates of obesity, diabetes and asthma – all especially high in the San Joaquin Valley.

We look forward to framework development that is slated to be finished in 2018-19.

Ginger Johnson

More specifics by grade and a list of approved materials for health classes will be coming, and Modesto will take up replacing its old high school textbooks then, said Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson.

“We look forward to framework development that is slated to be finished in 2018-19,” she said. High school students are still using textbooks printed in 2003, she confirmed.

The old books still include the 1992 U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid, replaced in 2011 by the food plate emphasizing vegetables over carbohydrates. They teach CPR techniques the Red Cross no longer endorses, so teachers supplement to give students better information.

The well-worn books also come up short in practical advice for finding supportive friends and creating resilient families. Since 2014-15, students at Enochs High in Modesto have provided that training to their classmates through presentations by the teen Healthy And Responsible Relationships Team, or HARRT.

For Modesto’s elementary schools, the video committee of parents, teachers and trustees did not take on updating the films’ content, but what was available included more recent information anyway.

“I’ve been impressed with how open they are,” said MCS board President Sue Zwahlen, a nurse, about the videos. She and Amy Neumann are the two trustees on the video committee. The panel continues to meet and is discussing all the materials, but has not made any moves to change policy, she said.

I’ve been impressed with how open (the videos) are.

Sue Zwahlen

Modesto’s elementary kids mostly get information about changes happening, or coming soon, to their bodies. Girls typically start puberty between 8 and 13, with the boys’ range a year behind them, 9-14, according to Kids starting kindergarten at 5 will be 9 in fourth grade.

But sixth-graders will get an added video called “Fetal Development,” a topic never mentioned in state standards for sixth grade. Pregnancy is not even expected to be discussed in sixth grade, nor is it explored in any of the puberty videos.

Asked why it was included, Zwahlen said, “I think it was there historically. Previous committee members were pleased with it.”

The videos sent to the board for approval otherwise stuck to standard puberty topics. Modesto fourth-graders will be watching “Just Around the Corner,” one version for boys and one for girls. Marsh Media says each version covers the basics of the gender-specific reproductive system and what to expect as puberty starts. Both cover the importance of good hygiene as the sweat glands get smelly and acne begins, getting enough sleep, good nutrition and exercise.

Fifth-graders will be watching Marsh Media videos for grades 4-6, Puberty: A Boy’s Journey, and Puberty: A Girl’s Journey. Both re-examine the same topics on physical changes, with added information on body image, peer pressure, cliques, social awkwardness and bullying.

Sixth-graders will see Puberty: The Great Adventure, published by World Educational Media, and another video on mental health issues. “Am I Normal,” first created in 1979, has dropped its tongue-in-cheek approach in favor of a more clinical presentation of information on spotting serious depression, managing anxiety, concerns about physical appearance, and dealing with rage.

There is no health textbook for elementary classes, only packets of materials the district creates for teachers, Mack said.

A 2007 study for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found abstinence education had no discernible impact on teens’ sexual behavior.

Health and sexuality have undergone dramatic changes in cultural norms. In recent years, gender identity has become a hot-button issue, spreading even to Facebook statuses and emojis. Efforts to legislate a return to simpler days have run into minefields, such as North Carolina’s law mandating the birth certificate match the bathroom used. How that works for elderly couples where one has to help the other from wheelchair to toilet is unclear, and it seems ripe for abuse by men in bars “screening” women at the bathroom door.

National Geographic magazine this month put out a special issue titled “Gender Revolution: The Shifting Landscape of Gender.” It looks at the science of gender, finding even in our genes the XX and XY world is more complicated than we thought.

It also samples the views of 9-year-olds around the world on the subject. A girl in Kenya expects to be essentially sold into marriage, “and even if the man goes and beats me up eventually, my parents will have the dowry to console them.” A girl in India states she will not get an education or be able to travel, while boys can. A Canadian girl says, “There isn’t anything I can’t do because I’m a girl. Everyone is equal.”

Women in Iceland have the greatest equality with men, while women in Yemen have the least. The United States has a sizable wage gap and lack of female political leaders, pushing it to 24th on the 2015 list compiled by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.

There is also an interview of Gloria Steinem, now 82, who sees problems with raising girls to be passive and boys to be in control. “What helps the most is for boys to be raised to raise children,” she says, meaning “ to be empathetic, pay attention to detail and be patient.”

Gender as a spectrum instead of two foregone conclusions is a foreign concept to many parents, leaving their children to figure out this fast-evolving matrix on their own. Health class, tailor-made to handle squeamish topics, could provide facts and a safe forum to raise questions and learn vocabulary. Even the LGBTQ (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning) title is little more than a verbal way station to describe a community that seems to daily update its nomenclature.

But by any name, these kids are among the most vulnerable, associated with far higher rates of bullying and suicide. Respect for personal differences is part of the updated California standards mandating high schools give teens better information to stay safe than “Just say No.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin