California Leads on Sex Ed, But It's Not All Rosy in the Golden State

Posted on 25 May 2010

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By Phyllida Burlingame

California has one of the country's strongest laws ensuring comprehensive sex education. Back in 2003, the legislature put teen health first and passed a law requiring sex education to be comprehensive, science-based and free of bias. California is also the only state that never accepted federal funding under the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program. A Guttmacher Institute report released last week credits these factors as a core reason that California leads the nation in lowering teen pregnancy rates.

But even here, the stark reality is that some public schools across the state are still using abstinence-only programs. Private, community-based organizations received substantial grants from the federal government to teach abstinence-only-until-marriage. These and other organizations have continued to present biased and inaccurate information in public schools. With over 1,000 school districts and very little in the way of state enforcement, it has been a challenge to make sure that students receive the comprehensive sex education required by California law.

One example of the disparity between law and practice: Robert Edmonds, a parent in Sonoma County, was shocked when his son came home from junior high talking about how students in his science class were encouraged to make pledges to remain abstinent until marriage. Edmonds called the school to learn more, and discovered that the presenters, from a community-based organization called Free To Be, use an abstinence-only-until-marriage program and spread inaccurate information about condoms and contraception. An independent review of that curriculum by the Public Health Institute found that it violates state law and provides harmful misinformation.

We all want our kids to hold off sexual activity until they're mature and ready. But most parents — myself included — want our kids to have access to medically accurate, unbiased information about sexual health. They'll need that at whatever point in their life they become sexually active. A survey of California parents found that the vast majority (96 percent) of California parents oppose sex education that only teaches abstinence.

In an effort led by parents and community members, the ACLU Northern California is advocating for schools in Sonoma County — and across the state — to comply with California law by replacing abstinence-only programs with sex education curricula that teach about condoms and contraception, as well as about the benefits of delaying sexual activity.

Parents can be powerful agents of change when it comes to ensuring that schools teach comprehensive sex education. A number of resources for California parents advocating for sex ed are available online.

Renee Walker, a parent in Walnut Creek, succeeded in getting her son's school district to replace an abstinence-only program with comprehensive sex ed, and went on to create Bay Area Communities for Health Education (BACHE), which educates and mobilizes parents to become advocates for good sex education in their children's schools.

The Fremont Unified School District in the Bay Area used a federally funded abstinence-only provider for years until parents made it clear to the district that it needed to comply with the law and drop the program. With support from the ACLU of Northern California, parents and community members successfully advocated for the district to adopt comprehensive curricula.

It's biased and wrong for sex education to teach young people that sexual activity is only acceptable in the context of heterosexual marriage. We all want young people to be in healthy relationships, and we can't afford to teach misinformation about sexual health. Our young people need and deserve better.

If you're a resident of Northern California and would like to let us know if schools in your community are using abstinence-only programs, let us know. Outside of Northern California, contact the national ACLU at Tell us where you're located and what program the school is using, and we'll help you improve sex education in your community.


Phyllida Burlingame is the Sex Education Policy Director for the ACLU of Northern California and mother of two young children.