Fresno Unified looks to restore sex education
June 17, 2015
The district’s Sociology for Living class ended in 2011
Fresno County has some of the highest teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates
Fresno Unified officials are talking about restoring sex education across the city’s high schools under a plan that would add lessons about sexually transmitted infections, contraception and healthy relationships.
At the district’s school board meeting Wednesday, trustees took up a proposal that would bring back all those topics by January. They didn’t take a vote and the issue will likely get more discussion this summer or fall.
The measure comes after local organizations like teen health group Fresno Barrios Unidos and the ACLU of Northern California urged district administrators to restore the lessons. It’s also on the heels of legislation that’s passed the state Assembly and is winding through the state Senate that would make comprehensive sex education mandatory in middle and high schools.
If the bill becomes law, it would mark a huge shift in what’s required of California public schools.
Fresno students already get the absolute basics. State law currently requires middle and high schools to provide education about how to prevent HIV/AIDS.
But schools are not mandated to offer “comprehensive” sex education, or age-appropriate, unbiased, medically accurate information. To be comprehensive, students must learn about abstinence, sexually transmitted infections and contraception.
Local health advocates who attended Wednesday’s meeting praised the curriculum and said they were encouraged by the district’s effort.
Socorro Santillan, executive director of Fresno Barrios Unidos, urged trustees to partner with organizations like hers to help teach students. The group already has programs for parents and has taught workshops at some high schools.
Others who attended, like UCSF Fresno resident Dr. Janae Barker, said it’s a matter of public health.
Barker said she’s constantly witnessing teens who repeat their mistakes: they never learn about safe sex and prevention and wind up contracting syphilis or getting pregnant. Among a group of at-risk teen girls she’s worked with at Fresno High, she said, “it was amazing the things they didn’t know. There are kids in that class, two of which are currently pregnant, one who is on her second pregnancy.”
Fresno high schools used to have a class called Sociology for Living, a health and life skills class that was axed for budget and other reasons in 2011. It was at one time a graduation requirement and taught students about some sexual health topics and about marriage and family issues.
In 2011, school board members found a compromise to cut the class, but retain the subjects students were taught. That may have happened for a while, but school officials said this spring that comprehensive sex education is no longer offered.
Among school districts in Fresno County, students within Fresno Unified have the highest rates of both infections, Fresno Department of Public Health statistics show. Clovis and Central Unified are next on the list.
At the meeting, trustee Carol Mills said she hopes the district will move sooner than later to bring sex education back into both the middle and high schools. She’s talked to middle school nurses who have told her about eighth-grade girls becoming pregnant, a fact Mills said is almost “incomprehensible, although I know it exists.”
Many of the trustees said schools can’t alone be expected to turnaround such dire statistics. But overall, most were supportive of the plan.
Trustee Brooke Ashjian, who attended the meeting via conference call, questioned whether students would learn about lesbian, gay, bisexual and other sexual orientation and gender issues. He also questioned whether traditional relationships and marriage values would be taught.
Those questions will likely be hashed out in future board discussions.
Syphilis cases in the Golden State jumped by 18 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to new data released by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). There was also a 5 percent increase in chlamydia cases and a 1.5 percent increase in gonorrhea cases.
Across the board, the STD rates among African Americans continue to be strikingly high, especially in comparison to the other racial groups.
Because of incarceration, homicide and AIDS, Fullilove said, "A large number of marriageable men were taken out of the community. When you have this kind of population imbalance, many of the rules that govern mating behavior in the community are simply going to go out the window."
"The competition for a man becomes so extreme ... all of the prevention measures [like condom usage] that we've been trying to create over the last 30 years go out the window."
But Heidi Bauer, chief of the health department's STD control branch, told The Huffington Post that Fullilove's theory is hard to prove, and that the department has not found a smoking gun explaining any of the disease increases. It may be that individuals have more partners and use fewer condoms or that, especially given cuts to local health departments and clinics, there is less access to care, she said.
Regarding education, Bauer said that California law mandates HIV education but that schools have a lot of autonomy over what other curriculum, if any, they provide -- as long as it's accurate.
The health department is concerned with the increase in state rates because these STDs can lead to infertility, passing a disease on to a newborn and increasing the risk of HIV, Bauer told HuffPost.
Across all races, chlamydia affected the highest number of people in California, with about 164,000 cases reported in 2011.
Across the board, the chlamydia rates were about twice as high for women than for men. This is largely because the disease is often asymptomatic, but women are screened annually up to age 25 and therefore diagnosed more often, Bauer explained. The rates were highest for men and women between 20 and 24 years old, with the exception of African American women, with whom the highest rate is women between 15 and 19 years old. Here is the racial breakdown:
Chlamydia rates (per 100,000 population):There were 27,000 gonorrhea cases in California in 2011. Gonorrhea rates were higher -- sometimes twice as high -- for men than for women (except for Native Americans) because of men having sex with men and because women with gonorrhea often don’t have symptoms. The highest gonorrhea rates were in San Francisco (276.5), followed by Fresno (127.2) and Sacramento (126.7). Here is the racial breakdown:
- African American - 1,030.3
- Latino - 332.6
- Native American - 216.4
- White - 141.9
- Asian/Pacific Islander - 118
Gonorrhea rates (per 100,000 population):There were about 2,500 syphilis cases, and men had vastly higher rates as it largely affects men who have sex with men. The highest syphilis rate was in San Francisco (46.2), followed by Berkeley (14.8). It is the only STD out of the three discussed where whites had the second-highest rate:
- African American - 303.8
- Latino - 40.7
- Native American - 37.7
- White - 33.3
- Asian/Pacific Islander - 17.2
Syphilis rates (per 100,000 population):Nationally, in 2010, chlamydia rates increased, gonorrhea increased slightly and syphilis decreased (but increased among black men), according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- African American - 16.6
- White - 6.2
- Latino - 5.4
- Native American - 4.9
- Asian/Pacific Islander - 2.3