In a decision that’s being hailed as “historic,” a judge in Fresno County, California, has ruled against an abstinence-only sex education program, saying a school district violated state law by failing to provide adequate instruction on sexual health and HIV prevention.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black said a lawsuit against Clovis Unified School District was justified because the district failed to offer “comprehensive, medically accurate, objective and bias-free” education, in violation of the California Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act, adopted in 2003. The law requires public schools to “provide a pupil with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect his or her sexual and reproductive health from unintended pregnancy and STDs.”
“Given the high social cost of teen pregnancy and similar toll on society of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, the rights vindicated by this suit, access to medically, and socially appropriate sexual education, is an important public right,” Black wrote.
The suit, filed by a group of Clovis parents in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Academy of Pediatrics, alleged that the school district was violating California law and putting students’ health at risk by teaching medically inaccurate information and denying students critical instruction about safe sex and pregnancy prevention.
The parents objected to the fact that Clovis was using a textbook that advised that all adults should abstain from sexual activity until marriage, and that didn’t include any information about preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. They also took issue with the school district’s partnerships with outside groups — including a crisis pregnancy center that disseminates inaccurate information about the risks of abortion — to provide health instruction to students, despite the fact that those groups aren’t qualified to teach comprehensive sex ed.
The suit also accused the district of using abstinence-based instructional videos containing false and biased information, including one video that compared a non-virgin woman with a “dirty shoe,” and others that suggested that men are physically unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused. At least one video used by the district had been cited by the state Department of Education as unsuitable “due to medical inaccuracies,” the ruling said. Furthermore, much of the material contained anti-LGBT content, the suit alleged, citing one video — entitled Never Regret The Choice — that advocated that homosexuality doesn’t exist by encouraging students to adopt the mantra, “One man, one woman, one life.”
Black’s ruling reads:
Plaintiffs claim that the District approved and used a variety of “egregiously inaccurate and biased videos,” including Sex still has a Price Tag and No Apologies: The Truth about Life, Love and Sex; in 2007 it engaged an outside agency, Teen Choices, Inc., to provide instruction in intermediate school using a curriculum that was “replete with inaccurate, biased, and outdated information”; it approved another agency, the Pregnancy Care Center, to provide instruction despite the fact that its instructors did not have the required expertise in comprehensive sexual health education, and as it representative later admitted its presentation did not meet the requirements of the Act; and it adopted textbooks that failed to mention condoms or other contraception.
The case, American Academy of Pediatrics, et al. v. Clovis Unified School District, was initially filed in 2012, but the plaintiffs dropped the case in 2014 after Clovis changed its sex ed policies to bring them more in line with California law. Black, however, ruled that the district is still responsible for paying the parents’ legal fees, citing their lawsuit as the catalyst for these important changes.
As the San Francisco Chronicle notes, the ruling only applies to the Clovis district. However, since this case represents the first-ever ruling on California’s decade-old sex education standards, the ACLU believes it sets an important precedent for schools in the rest of the state.
“Teens deserve complete, accurate health information, which they’ll need at whatever point in their life they become sexually active,” Phyllida Burlingame, of the ACLU of Northern California, said Monday in a statement. “This ruling is huge victory for students.”
With no national requirements for comprehensive sex ed curricula in public schools, the quality and content of instruction varies widely from state-to-state and district-to-district — if it is offered at all.
Currently, only 22 states require sex ed in schools and 19 states require health materials to emphasize the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage. Just 13 states mandate that sexual health curricula must be medically accurate — which means that young people across the country are receiving false and potentially dangerous information about the effectiveness of birth control and condoms, the correct way to prevent STDs, and the way that HIV is transmitted.
In addition to misleading students and failing to provide them with critical information about sexual and reproductive health, abstinence-only programs have also drawn criticism for using shame tactics and for reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes — for example, telling students that “boys will be boys” — that adversely affect sexual development and future relationships.
The judge’s ruling this week is supported by overwhelming medical consensus and scientific evidence. Health experts agree that funding abstinence programs is a waste of money — as well as potentially dangerous — and an expansive body of research confirms that abstinence-based curricula simply don’t work: they don’t delay the initiation of sexual activity, nor do they prepare students to safeguard their sexual health — in some cases, the instruction can even lead to riskier sexual behavior. It’s not surprising, then, that states where schools are not required to offer comprehensive sexual health instruction have significantly higher rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancies. On the other hand, more comprehensive sex ed programs that don’t rely so much on scare tactics have been proven to help teenagers delay sexual activity, as well as practice safe sex when they do choose to engage in that behavior.
Despite the clear case against abstinence-only sex ed, these programs continue to be propped up with state and federal funding. Just last month, Congress quietly appropriated $25 million in additional funding for the very same type of abstinence education programs that were just found to violate the public right to medically accurate sex ed.