Last year, a 13-year-old boy in Mendota raised his hand in class and asked Kayla Wilson what age he had to be to buy condoms.

Wilson, who teaches sex education for the Fresno County Office of Education, told him there is no age restriction. She was stunned to find out a local store had refused to sell the boy condoms.

“The next time I came back, he told me he had gone to four stores in the city, and none of them would sell them to him,” Wilson said. “We’re still a very conservative place, as we all know. The sad thing is people have this false ideology that by teaching kids about sex that we’re promoting sex. When really, that’s not true at all.”

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The California Healthy Youth Act went into effect in 2016 and requires that middle and high schools teach unbiased and medically accurate sex education, including lessons on birth control and abortion. But there is concern about how much support the curriculum is getting in the politically conservative central San Joaquin Valley, which has a history of pushback against such lessons.

Wilson has had intense conversations with local school board members and parents who think sex education is a personal matter that should be taught at home – not in school.

“Nobody is pro-teens-having-sex, but we don’t talk about it. It’s still taboo,” she said. “When we talk to them about drugs and alcohol, it’s not because we condone it, it’s because we know that they could cause harm. It’s the same thing with sex. As a community, our goal should be to make sure that our students are getting through high school as well-adjusted, healthy adults. So we need to talk about all the things that could impact that.”

‘Right and wrong’

For years, Fresno Unified school board president Brooke Ashjian has opted his children out of sex education classes in the district he was elected to serve.

“We didn’t want someone else teaching our kids about morality, and what was right and what was wrong,” he said. “That’s the role of a father and mother: You bring a child into the world and you talk to them about things that matter. With society going away from church – whatever church that is – you’re not getting the first crack at that kid. Somebody else is. And that’s a problem.”

Fresno Unified school board president Brooke Ashjian BEE FILE PHOTO

A Mormon and a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, Ashjian says Fresno Unified will follow the law, but he is blunt about his personal beliefs regarding some of the lessons now mandated in schools, including teaching LGBT-inclusive sex education.

“My biggest fear in teaching this – which we’re going to do it because it’s the law – but you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way,” Ashjian said. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”

Ashjian is also anti-abortion, and takes issue with the state’s mandate that students learn about abortion as an option for pregnancy. The law also requires lessons on adoption and “safe surrender,” which allows parents to confidentially drop off their baby at a designated location.

“There’s certainly a lot of psychological effects that come from abortion that people need to be aware of,” Ashjian said. “Your life is a lot easier by not doing it. Look at these poor girls who get raped and have to have an abortion. If that’s the way they’ve got to go, God bless them. But think of all the repercussions that come later in life, mental and psychological.”

Dr. Steven Fogg, a Clovis Unified trustee, also pointed to his Mormon faith, and said he finds himself caught between his beliefs and the new law. He says he urges his adult children, 18 and 20, to practice abstinence until they’re married. While abstinence-only curriculum is forbidden under the Healthy Youth Act, abstinence is included among the required lessons. Prior to the law, a Fresno County judge ruled against Clovis Unified’s abstinence-only courses, which were brought to court after a lesson compared a girl who was not a virgin to a dirty shoe.

Clovis Unified trustee Dr. Steven Fogg

“Your life is easier and better when you live certain moral values. But I put my personal values and judgments aside in order to help these people,” Fogg said. “As school systems, we have to step in where parents have failed.”

Clovis Unified has bucked state directives before. In 2016, parents campaigned for the school board to fight laws that allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice. Also last year, the school board voted to uphold a strict dress code despite concerns that the policy violated gender-rights laws – only to overturn that decision later amid threats of lawsuits.

“We are a very conservative community. Many of us have similar values in our school systems, and we promote that. That’s why we move here. Nevertheless, we’ve got to follow the law, and we can’t ignore those who have a different lifestyle than we do,” Fogg said. “The problem is when those with other lifestyles push too far and try to change us  The city of Clovis won’t put up with that.”

Nationally, sex education continues to be infused with politics, with Trump cutting teen parent prevention programs and investing in abstinence-only curriculum.

John Gerardi, CEO of Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization based in Fresno, promotes abstinence-based lessons, despite overwhelming research that it is the least effective form of sex education. He says the Healthy Youth Act is another battle the Valley must face as an outlier in a liberal state.

“I wish there were a way more conservative people who oppose abortion and think it’s morally wrong, who are running the schools, could have some way to object. That’s the problem with living in a state of 40 million people,” Gerardi said. “I think it’s hard to draw a straight-line conclusion that conservative politics lead to more teen pregnancies. These are kids from poor homes, maybe homes that don’t value education the same way – possibly from immigrant families – maybe there’s not the same emphasis on the proper ordering of: graduate high school, get married, then have a baby.”

Jennifer Chou, a reproductive justice attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, has been leading “Know Your Rights” sessions on sex education across the Valley – teaching students to be the whistleblowers if their schools aren’t providing them with the lessons now mandated by law. She called remarks like Ashjian’s “irresponsible and harmful.”

“It’s alarming that the board president of California’s fourth-largest school district is making public statements that perpetuate medically inaccurate information about abortion and that openly stigmatize and shame LGBTQ students,” Chou said. “The board president works for all students, and he should be reminding kids that school is a safe and accepting place for all of them, in all their diversity. We know that LGBTQ-inclusive sex education reduces bullying and harassment and creates a positive effect on school climate overall.”

How do we know it’s being taught?

Before the Healthy Youth Act was passed, Fresno Unified was one of few in the state that didn’t teach comprehensive sex education.

Facing budget cuts in 2011, the district ended its Sociology for Living classes, the only course covering some sexual health topics in schools. The nearly 50 teachers who taught the class either switched subjects, retired or were laid off.

Pat Chacon, who has taught in Fresno Unified for 30 years, was one of the sociology teachers who had to switch subjects. When the district made the decision to cut the courses in the face of the region’s high teen pregnancy and STD rates, she was stunned.

She and other teachers attended school board meetings and met with every trustee personally to urge them to keep the class.

“In essence, sex ed was wiped out. We tried to save the course. We fought really hard,” said Chacon, who now teaches child development. “What’s ironic about the whole thing is, in education, we’re always talking about how we have to help these kids get what they don’t get at home, especially in a place like Fresno Unified that has all these socioeconomic problems. We’re giving them breakfast, lunch and dinner, yet we don’t want to give them this, which can have a huge impact on their quality of life.”

In light of the state law, Fresno Unified adopted Positive Prevention Plus – a sex education curriculum recommended by the California Department of Education. While all schools are required to teach specific lessons regarding sexual health, advocates say there’s no way to know students are getting what they’re supposed to. Schools can decide if they want to train their own teachers to give the lessons, or hire an outside organization.

Robert Oakes, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said while the state offers online resources for schools to implement the law, there’s no auditing happening.

“This legislation assigned responsibilities to individual school districts, and the only role CDE has is distributing the kind of information you see on our web page,” Oakes said in an email. “We have only one staff person who works on this issue.”

For people like Socorro Santillan, who oversees Fresno Barrios Unidos – an organization that has been teaching sex education for decades – the law is being met with cautious optimism.

“We still get pushback. There are still a lot of school districts that are in denial about the law – that say they will decide what goes on in their classrooms. They want to pick and choose what the students learn, and what they don’t,” she said. “As a city, we’re very conservative. When those in decision-making roles are making decisions based on their own personal beliefs, it becomes a challenge because you’re not able to see the situation from a young person’s perspective. You’re assuming everyone has a mama and papa at home, and goes to church every Sunday and has all this support from the community. The thing is, the majority of our youth aren’t getting that.”

Sex in the classroom

Desirre Herrera, a program manager for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, has been teaching sex education at Central Valley schools for more than a decade. She has a seven-part curriculum that starts with introductions to sexual orientation, gender and reproductive systems. Next are sessions on sexually transmitted diseases; HIV/AIDS and contraception. The last few sessions go further: discussing healthy relationships and “refusal skills” – teaching students about rape, consent and partner violence.

Herrera knows what she’s up against. Schools have turned down her services because of the political attachment to Planned Parenthood. She lays out her lesson plans for administrators before she brings them to students, and hosts “parent preview” nights so that families can see the curriculum.

“The pushback is generally ‘Don’t talk about any of that stuff,’ as if it doesn’t happen. But it happens. That’s why we need to talk about it,” she said. “If we pretend it’s not there, it doesn’t go away. Students just end up dealing with it on their own.”

Herrera is encouraged by the passage of the Healthy Youth Act, but is skeptical. Students are receptive to the information – it’s the adults tasked with teaching it that she’s concerned about.

“There’s no way to track how they’re doing it. Even if someone does get training, there’s no guarantee that that person is comfortable teaching the information. And the students can tell,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had experiences where teachers have stereotypical ideas about sex. We still have very high rates of teen births and STI’s in the Central Valley, and if we’re ever going to address that, we have to address how this information is being delivered.”

In a San Joaquin classroom in April, Wilson fielded questions about sex from seventh and eighth graders. She said she wants to “be real” with them, and launched into a lesson on sexting.

“If you have any nudies on your phone  I know your partner is going to tell you, ‘I’m not going to show anybody,’ ” Wilson said. “But just to burst your bubble a little bit: There are no secrets in middle school.”

Wilson is unflinching, no matter how intense the students’ questions get. She tells the class about the dangers of “the pull-out method,” and promotes the use of spermicides and long-acting birth control methods like intrauterine devices. She uses a dry erase marker to simulate a penis when talking about how to use a condom. She teaches about a state law that allows them to leave school without parental permission to seek contraception, an abortion or STD testing – but warns it’s not an excuse to skip class.

At times, a group of girls start to giggle. A boy slides down in his chair and hides his face with the hood of his sweatshirt. But then, the classroom goes silent.

“Sex comes with a great responsibility because it adds heaviness to your relationship,” Wilson said. “I got pregnant at 16, so I get it.”

Wilson is open with her students about growing up as a teen mom in Madera. While the Valley’s teen birth rates have declined, the region is not making the same strides as the state and nation. In 2012, nearly 3,000 teenagers gave birth in Fresno, Madera and Tulare counties alone.

“I want to work myself out of a job,” Wilson said.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

Teens and sex

This story is part of a series about sex education and teen pregnancy, and is produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship. Read other stories in the series,

This story was originally published August 04, 2017 11:55 AM.