School Says Rest Can Deter STDs, Parents Say

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – The Clovis Unified School District violates California law by teaching abstinence-only sex education, and tells students to “get plenty of rest” to avoid AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, parents and the American Academy of Pediatrics claim in court.
     Joining the American Academy of Pediatrics as plaintiffs are mothers Aubree Smith and Mica Ghimenti, and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
     The Superior Court complaint claims the school district, which has five high schools, jeopardizes its students’ health.
     Clovis is a suburb of Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.
     “Since at least 2000, Fresno County has had one of the highest teenage birth rates in California. The Central Valley also has one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among teenagers,” the complaint states.
     California banned abstinence-only sex education in 2003, and required schools to provide “medically accurate, current and objective” information about all FDA-approved methods of preventing pregnancy and STDs. The materials and instruction must be “appropriate for all students, regardless of gender, race of sexual orientation,” according to the complaint.
     The real problem, the plaintiffs say, is that the Clovis school district uses “Lifetime Health” as its sex education textbook. Published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, the textbook “promotes the abstinence-only policy many states – but not California – pursued a decade ago, when federal funding was offered for abstinence-only programs,” the complaint states.
     “The Holt textbook teaches that people (including consenting adults) should refrain from sexual intimacy until they are married. It omits any information about condoms and contraception. It recommends various lifestyle behaviors to help prevent STD infection, including ‘practice abstinence’ and ‘get plenty of rest,’ but fails to mention using condoms. For this reason, the California Department of Education has advised other school districts that the Holt textbook does not meet the legal requirements of the Education Code. The Department of Education has also advised that the sections of this textbook that relate to sexual and reproductive health ‘may not be taught, even if supplemented with other material,” according to the complaint. (Parentheses in complaint.)
     While the Clovis school district allows teachers to supplement the Holt textbook with other approved materials, including videos, the plaintiffs say the supplements do not bridge the gap between the textbook and California law.
     “Nor do the supplements render the Holt textbook acceptable under law. Indeed, many of the approved videos independently violate the Education Code by themselves presenting inaccurate and biased information,” the groups say.
     The plaintiffs say that parents for years have asked the school district to implement a sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum that gives students medically accurate information, but Clovis Unified School District has done nothing to change its policies.
     Clovis Unified is a huge school district, covering 200 square miles with a population of 38,000 students in five intermediate and five high schools. California formerly funded community-based sexual health programs in the Central Valley, which is a teen pregnancy and STD “hot spot,” the groups say.
     However, funding for those programs has been eliminated because of the state’s dire financial situation. School-based HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual health education are the only options available to Clovis students now, they claim. And though California legislators specifically banned abstinence-only sex ed more than 8 years ago, the plaintiffs say Clovis Unified School District refuses to teach anything else.
     “Respondent district has reacted to repeated efforts to improve its sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention instruction from concerned and knowledgeable parents and expert organizations – plaintiffs and petitioners here – with a combination of delay, obstruction and dismissive rejection. Any modifications that were made have been insufficient for purposes of code compliance. At present, the high school instruction presents students with outdated, ideologically driven, biased and inaccurate materials,” the complaint states.
     The Holt textbook contains only one unit on sexual health, while the remaining five units deal with other aspects of health, including self-esteem, nutrition and drug abuse. In the four chapters dealing with sex, the textbook focuses solely on saving sex for marriage, according to the complaint.
     “In the chapter entitled ‘Risks of Adolescent Sexual Activity,’ the Holt textbook instructs that abstinence is the way to ‘protect your future.’ Throughout, the Holt textbook fails to include required information about contraception and condoms,” the plaintiffs say.
     While the book describes the symptoms and treatment of bacterial, viral and parasitic STDs, it never mentions condoms as a means of prevention.
     “Instead, the section entitled ‘Preventing STDs’ is silent with respect to any FDA-approved STD prevention methods, relying exclusively on abstinence and suggestions that students ‘Respect Yourself,’ ‘Get plenty of rest,’ and ‘Go out as a group,'” the complaint states.
     For preventing HIV/AIDS, the Holt textbook “does not mention condoms, listing only ‘1. Practice abstinence,’ ‘2. Avoid multiple partners,’ advising that ‘when a couple is ready for marriage, both partners should maintain a monogamous relationship,’ ‘3. Don’t share needles … or any items that may put a person in contact with blood,’ and ‘4. Avoid drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs,'” the groups say, citing the Holt textbook.
     The textbook neglects to provide teens with contraceptive advice, again stressing abstinence as the only sure way to prevent unwanted pregnancy. And it excludes lesbian, gay and bisexual teens as well, the plaintiffs claim.
     “The Holt textbook reflects bias against gay, lesbian and bisexual people. For example, the Holt textbook lists a number of types of families, but does not include same-sex households in its list. The Holt textbook also emphasizes abstinence from sexual activity until marriage, which it defines as ‘a lifelong union between a husband and a wife.’ None of the discussions of sexual behavior or relationships discuss same-sex couples,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs say Clovis’s “supplementary materials” fail to cure the Holt textbook’s defects, by presenting abstinence-only programs, inaccurate and outdated information about STD and HIV/AIDS transmission, gender and sexual orientation bias, and medical inaccuracies.
     A 1988 video with early AIDS victim Ryan White discusses how he “cannot participate in sports and must use a separate bathroom from other students,” the complaint states.
     Clovis Unified also violates state law by requiring parents to request that their children receive sexual health education rather than “opt-out,” as the law demands. The district has stonewalled parents’ demands to improve its sex ed program for 5 years, the plaintiffs say.
     “Beginning in at least the 2007-2008 school year, respondent district implemented curriculum and hired instructors from Teen Choices Inc. for its intermediate schools. The Teen Choices program is replete with outdated, inaccurate, biased information. Indeed, the California Department of Education has twice found the Teen Choices program noncompliant with state law, after auditing it in other Central Valley school districts (Selma and Dinuba). Starting in 2009, petitioner Ghimenti outlined her concerns with the curriculum and instruction provided by Teen Choices to [district administrators]. For over one year, respondent district resisted not only a change to its curriculum, but also a dialogue with Ms. Ghimenti and other concerned parents,” the complaint states.
     Ghimenti and Smith say they fought the district through the 2011 school year, speaking out against Clovis’s policies at public meetings and in letters to school administrators. They say that school officials ignored their requests and refused to allow them to copy materials for further evaluation.
     A formal letter from American Academy of Pediatrics lawyers forced district officials to change the intermediate school curriculum, but the new materials continue to raise concerns about compliance with state law, the groups say. And the school district has continued to refuse to change the high school program.
     Demands under the Public Records Act resulted in the school district providing “incomplete information, responded late and unlawfully withheld certain materials,” the plaintiffs say. When the district finally provided parents with the new materials, the list conflicted with information it gave them at the beginning of the school year.
     Finally, Clovis Unified allowed the groups to review “nearly all of the materials” in the intermediate and high school sexual health education program in April.
     “Based on this review, petitioners have confirmed that respondent district’s current high school curriculum fails to comply with the Act and is unlawful for the reasons discussed above,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs seek writ of mandate compelling Clovis Unified to provide a sex ed curriculum that complies with California law. They want the court to declare that the current program violates the education code, and an injunction restraining the school district from “teaching a noncompliant HIV/AIDS prevention and sexual health education curriculum” and requiring parents to opt their children in to sex ed classes.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Alexis Coll-Very and Simona Strauss, with Simpson Thacher and Bartlett, of Palo Alto, with support from Elizabeth Gill of the ACLU in San Francisco.

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