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At the February 11th Santa Barbara Unified School District Board meeting, a number of community members spoke out against the District’s proposed new junior high health curriculum that has been developed in accordance with the California Healthy Youth Act. Many of the speakers were affiliated with a larger movement to halt the district’s work to advance equity and better serve underrepresented students. The comments made by these speakers were not aimed at creating a healthier community, but rather on defeating the efforts of health-care advocates to improve the health of our communities through medically accurate, inclusive, and equitable sex ed.
Passed in 2015, the California Healthy Youth Act requires public middle and high schools to provide students with age-appropriate information related to: gender identity, sexual orientation, healthy relationships, consent, contraception, unintended pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and a myriad of other topics that are of high importance for the health of youth in our community. This law raises the bar for comprehensive sex ed and requires sex ed curriculum to be inclusive for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) students.
The 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report published by the Human Rights Campaign, a leading national LGBTQ+ advocacy organization, found that 70 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported having feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and 74 percent of LGBTQ+ students reported feeling unsafe in their classrooms. Moreover, the report found that only 5 percent of LGBTQ+ students believed that all of their teachers were supportive of LGBTQ+ people. These numbers point to the critical need for an inclusive sex ed curriculum that complies with the California Healthy Youth Act.
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I understand the need for comprehensive and inclusive sex ed. When I was a teenager, I remember feeling left out and marginalized by a sex ed curriculum that didn’t acknowledge diversity in gender and sexual identities, and that failed to provide me and many of my classmates with important information on how to make healthy decisions. This inadequate education forced LGBTQ+ students like myself to look elsewhere for information, and left us without an understanding of trusted resources that were available to help us stay safe and healthy, if and when we became sexually active. Without inclusive sex ed, LGBTQ+ students are isolated as they try to make sense of who they are during an already confusing and stressful time. An inclusive health curriculum will help increase understanding of gender and sexual diversity, improving the physical and mental health of our LGBTQ+ students.
Additionally, a comprehensive and inclusive sex ed curriculum will reduce the stigma surrounding sexual and reproductive health care, and it will promote healthier relationships. Students should know that their sexual health matters as much as any other aspect of their health and should not be afraid to seek preventive services, testing, and treatment when needed. Many sexually transmitted infections are on the rise throughout California, and greater education on sexual health is necessary to keep young people healthy and reduce transmission rates. Furthermore, it is important for sex ed curriculum to provide young people with information about the autonomy that they have over their own bodies.
I appreciate the Board of Education’s desire for the district to conduct greater outreach to community members and school stakeholders before making a decision on which curriculum to select for junior high health classes. At the same time, I urge the board to select a curriculum that educates students on gender identity and sexual orientation, provides medically accurate information on how to make healthy choices, and reduces stigma surrounding sexual health, such as the proposed Teen Talk curriculum. The health of young people in our community should not suffer as a result of a small group of community members’ objections to equitable and inclusive education.
Ethan Bertrand is a member of the Planned Parenthood Central Coast Action Fund Board of Directors and serves in elected office as a member of the Isla Vista Community Services District Board of Directors.