Fremont school board pauses sex education for preteens

Fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in the Fremont Unified School District will not have sex education this year after hundreds of parents objected to “age inappropriate” material in the proposed curriculum.

The decision came after a 10-hour meeting that started at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the district office, where nearly 200 people signed up to speak and hundreds packed into overflow rooms to witness the proceedings — which many described as controversial and divisive.

Advocates for Youth, an education nonprofit, created the Rights, Respect and Responsibility text (3Rs) as a free curriculum in the early 2000s. The district this year sought to replace its current curriculum with the 3Rs because the current material was out of compliance with the statewide California Healthy Youth law passed in 2015.

The 3Rs curriculum includes lessons on affirmative sexual consent, sexual assault, gender norms and LGBTQ identities, in addition to ones about puberty, menstruation, abortion and intercourse in middle school and beyond.

The large group that opposed the 3Rs for fourth through sixth graders and seventh and ninth graders was comprised mainly of parents, with platforms ranging from deeply religious interpretations of sexual education, to those who believed the curriculum should be rejected because the district did not give them sufficient notice of the changes.

Despite small variations in viewpoint, the crowd of parents cheered together when they heard the term “age-inappropriate” and said, most critically, that this was a fight for their children. Board member Ann Crosbie later responded to the implication that the board did not care about children.

Crosbie said:

“I’ve had three friends of mine die from HIV/AIDS, and it’s something I don’t want to see our students experience.”

Many parents pushed back against the notion that their opposition to the 3Rs meant they were homophobic or non-inclusive. Their signs read “Yes to sex ed, no to 3Rs,” an update from signs in previous meetings, which simply said “no to 3Rs.”

The group faced accusations in previous meetings that no students were included in their ranks, but this meeting saw a handful of youths who called for the board to protect their innocence.

One girl from John Hopkins Middle School compared the 3Rs to “Pleasure Island” in Pinocchio, saying the curriculum would corrupt students and interrupt their childhood, metaphorically spitting them into the world as depraved donkeys.

The opposing side, comprised mainly of students, alumni, teachers and a few parents, believed the curriculum changes would prevent bullying and protect all students, especially those that identify as LGBTQ.

One girl, a survivor of sexual assault and a district alum, said the 3Rs curriculum was critical to protecting people and informing abusers that their behavior is illegal.

She said:

“Not knowing what sexual harassment was made it so hard for me to report it … I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

After hearing nearly eight hours of public comment, the board picked out pieces of language that they found controversial, acknowledged parents, students and survivors for speaking and came to its decision.

Members also entertained a short discussion about editing the curriculum to add details about the consequences of having sex, like felony or misdemeanor arrest for statutory rape between two minors.

With two divided votes, the board failed to decide on adopting the curriculum for fourth through sixth graders. Board member Larry Sweeney, President Yang Shao and Clerk Desrie Campbell voted no. The board approved the 3Rs curriculum for seventh and ninth graders to comply with California law.

The board decided there would be no sex ed for fourth through sixth graders because it is not required by California law, but a task force would assemble July 1 to present the board with a decision by January 2019. Sex ed would then resume in schools by Spring 2019.

This is the first time in seven years that fourth-grade students will not receive the courses. Fifth and sixth graders have had sex education since the 1980s.

At the end of the meeting, those who opposed the 3Rs were jubilant, but the people who supported it described the outcome as worse than they had ever imagined.

Board Vice President Michele Berke, who vocally supported the 3Rs curriculum, said the board’s decision to remove sex ed this year would do a disservice to every student in the district. Berke has a child in the FUSD, and Shao asked her pointedly at the end of their deliberation if she was voting for all children, or just her own.

Berke said:

“I think anytime you choose to not educate students, it will have a consequence.”

Leena Yin, a FUSD alumna and sexual health advocate, said hundreds of young girls will be terrified and “left in the dark” if they experience their first period in the 4th grade without proper education.

Yin said:

“It’s not even the kids who will be opted out by their parents anymore, it’s literally every single child who can’t have this conversation with their parents … It’s heartbreaking.”