State-Level Fights for Comprehensive Sex Ed Reveal Legal Strategies Must Be Rooted in Grassroots Advocacy


As the school year began, parents in California’s Central Valley joined the California District of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network in suing the Clovis Unified School District. The suit involves the distgrict’s sexuality-education program. The majority of these controversies over the last 15 years have involved outrage over kids getting too much information. This lawsuit argues that kids are not getting enough.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Northern California, is based on a 2003 state law, stipulating that if a district chooses to teach sexuality education, it must be age-appropriate and medically accurate. Moreover, beginning in seventh grade, sexuality instruction must include information on abstinence “while also providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.”

Despite this law, the Clovis district takes a strict abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, suggesting that all people, including adults, should avoid sexual activity outside marriage. According to the ACLU, “Additional materials compare a woman who is not a virgin to a dirty shoe and suggest that men are unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused.” My favorite, however, has to be the health textbook that tells students that to prevent STDs and unintended pregnancies, they just have to “practice abstinence,” “respect yourself,” and “get plenty of rest.” Ironically, I seem to remember that “get plenty of rest” was advice I got when I wanted to get pregnant.

In fact, the California Department of Education has already noted that this textbook, Lifetime Health, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, did not meet the legal requirements of the 2003 law. You may recognize Lifetime Health from the recent report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which found that ten districts in that state were using a version of that text. It told students, among other things:

  • “When you practice abstinence, you will not be guilty of having sex with an unwilling partner. You will not be accused of date rape.”
  • “Character is a person’s use of self-control to act on responsible values. When you have good character, you uphold family values and practice abstinence from sex.”

The textbook was also the subject of a 2004 controversy in Texas. In that instance, the  publisher had worked with Joe McIlhaney to scrub the book of anything that might not be considered abstinence information in order to get the important—and profitable—stamp of approval from the state board of education. McIlhaney is a nationally recognized proponent of abstinence-only education and head of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. In fact, one advocate I spoke to in Texas said that if Clovis schools use this Texas-approved version of the book, it would essentially mean that the state board of education “got them sued.”

Regardless of what version of the book the schools are using, the information in it does not educate young people or help them protect themselves when they become sexually active. As one of the parents involved in the suit told the LA Times:

“I want there to be medically accurate, scientifically based education for all youth in Clovis Unified. If we don’t give them the information, they won’t be able to make good, healthy decisions.”  

Another mother involved in the suit put it this way:

“Our kids need complete, accurate information to help them protect themselves against STDs and unintended pregnancy. That’s information they’ll need at whatever point in their life they become sexually active.”

The school district is reviewing the lawsuit and has more time to reply. A spokeswoman, however, has defended the program, saying that the district fully complies with state education law that promotes abstinence as “the only 100% surefire way to prevent pregnancy” and STDs. In a statement the spokeswoman said, “It appears from an initial review that the concern raised in this lawsuit stems from a question of differing interpretations of the depth and breadth of a school district’s obligation to cover detailed sexual content in its family life-sex education materials.” According to the LA Times, however, she declined to comment on the allegation that the district omitted information about condoms and contraception.

While we wait to see how the lawsuit plays out, I asked a few experts if they thought that suing a school district for lack of information or for providing inaccurate information was a good strategy for parents and advocates of comprehensive sexuality education. The response was a combination of enthusiasm and cautious optimism.

Sarah Audelo, senior manager of domestic policy at Advocates for Youth, said:

“It’s wonderful that they are moving forward with the lawsuit because Clovis is not following the law and the education teens in that district are getting is harmful.”  

Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, called the lawsuit brilliant:

“We always say that parents play such a vital role in the sex education of their children and this is a great example of parents who take it seriously enough to say our children deserve better and this isn’t enough.”  

Schroeder went on to say that actions like this do two important things: “They remind people of the preponderance of support for comprehensive sex education among parents” and they “empower parents.” 

Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director at the ACLU of Northern California, who has been working with the parents in Clovis for a number of years, says: 

“It’s so valuable to have engaged parents advocating for comprehensive sex education in their children’s schools. They can educate other community members about why this is an important issue, they have leverage with the school district, and, after winning positive change, they will be around to make sure it’s being implemented.”  

Burlingame points out, however, that a lawsuit was not the first step Clovis took. Though litigation is a useful tool, it has to go hand in hand with advocacy in the community. Community members in the Clovis district have been working with the school board and administrators for a number of years to improve sexuality education and ensure that the district is complying with the law. They had some success when the district agreed to change the middle-school curriculum, a locally-written program that included inaccuracies and gender biases. But they hit a wall when the district refused to budge on the high-school program. This is why parents wanted to move forward with the lawsuit. 

Burlingame says that such lawsuits are possible only in states that have a strong law like California’s. But they are still a last resort. She notes that a number of communities were able to educate school administrators about the law and change minds without even the threat of a lawsuit. In Fremont, for example, parents got a national fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum out of the school. They replaced it with FLASH—a very comprehensive program written by the Seattle and King County Department of Health. Burlingame calls Fremont a testament to the “value of community organizing.” The committed and knowledgeable parents who worked on this issue continue to stay involved and have been able to fight off a few attempts to reinstate the strict abstinence-only program.

Elizabeth Schroeder agrees that committed parents are key. Her state of New Jersey has a strong mandate for sexuality education, but she points out that “once the classroom door is shut, if the teacher is doing something that doesn’t fulfill the mandate, oh well. There is no incentive to do it, and there’s no consequence for not doing it.” Watchful parents, however, can provide that incentive and that consequence. 

It does not surprise me that one of the parents involved in the advocacy efforts in Clovis is a health educator, and another is a nurse. When you work in the trenches with adolescents every day, you realize just how important access to information is. I have no doubt that the children of these parents are well informed. But I praise the parents for their commitment to the other kids in the community. As the mother of a first grader, I am getting my sea-legs when it comes to being part of the public-school system. I get the feeling that I’m going to become one of those watchful parents awfully soon.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner