Second-grade teacher Vickie Boudouris goes over an English worksheet with students at the Cordova Villa Elementary School in Rancho Cordova, Calif., in 2013. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

California’s Board of Education is revamping the guidance it gives for teaching sex education from kindergarten through high school in public schools. Even though the guidance is not mandatory, religious conservatives fought it all the way and said the subject should be taught at home.

Board members on Wednesday considered objections to explicit material that had been recommended for use and removed some of it. Concerns were expressed that some of the material was too explicit or seemed to be endorsing specific sexual activity. Among the targets: a book titled “S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties."

In the end, the panel voted to approve a broad framework for comprehensive sex education that it says is age-appropriate and important for young people to know to stay healthy.

The board spent hours considering a draft framework for health education that was completed in April. It covers six subject areas: nutrition and physical activity; growth, development and sexual health; injury prevention and safety; alcohol, tobacco and other drugs; mental, emotional and social health; and personal and community health. It is divided into grade groupings and provides advisory language for each content area.

For sex education, the topic that generated opposition, the framework offers numerous subjects for discussion at each grade grouping, including:

  • Grades kindergarten through three: gender identity
  • Grades four through six: sexual feelings, including masturbation
  • Grades seven through eight: consent and sexual abuse
  • Grades nine through 12: contraception and healthy sexual relationships, including advice for LGBTQ students

The framework is meant to assist educators in complying with the California Healthy Youth Act, which went into effect in 2016. It requires schools to provide comprehensive sex education to students in grades seven through 12, and HIV prevention education at least once in middle school and once in high school. The law defines comprehensive sexual health education as “education regarding human development and sexuality, including education on pregnancy, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections."

Each state has its own requirements and guidelines for sex education. California’s approach is as liberal as any in the country. A 2018 report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said that “27 states require lessons that stress abstinence, and 18 states require instruction that teaches students to engage in sexual activity only within marriage.”

California was among the first states to require that LGBTQ issues be part of instruction, and activists from that community praised the board for its attention to those issues. One speaker Wednesday said he was a 16-year-old transgender boy who said he heard virtually nothing in sex education class that addressed his life.

California school systems can select their own curriculum and instructional materials as long as they meet state guidelines, which say that all lessons must “be age-appropriate, medically accurate and objective, and appropriate for use with students of all races, genders, sexual orientations and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.” They also must:

  • affirmatively recognize different sexual orientations and be inclusive of same-sex relationships in discussions
  • teach about gender, gender expression, gender identity and the harm of negative gender stereotypes
  • teach the value of committed relationships such as marriage

Tony Thurmond, the state’s newly elected education secretary, said teachers will have to undergo training to learn how to present the material in class.

Parents can exempt their children from sex education lessons. Still, religious conservatives have been fighting the new sex education guidance, with several hundred protesting Wednesday at the Board of Education meeting. The Associated Press quoted a mother of six named Patricia Reyes as saying: “It’s just scary what they are going to be teaching. It’s pornography. If this continues, I’m not sending them to school.”

During the Board of Education’s meeting, there was a discussion of books said to be recommended in the draft framework that concerned the protesters.

One such book, mentioned in the section for grades nine through 12, suggests that teachers “promote a schoolwide read featuring the book,” “S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties,” by Heather Corinna. It includes explicit details of sexual activity.

During the meeting, some parents read from the book and showed board members pictures. The book was removed from the framework, along with some other explicit material.

Feliza I. Ortiz-Licon, a board member, said the panel “is not trying to ban books,” and “we’re not saying that the books are bad,” but that they had upset parents and were distracting from the goals of the guidance.

The framework includes scenarios for teachers and says that having students engage in “respect role-playing” can make sensitive conversations easier. One suggested for grades seven and eight that upset parents reads like this: “Two students are at a party. One asks the other for oral sex.”

Patricia Ann Rucker, another board member, said she understands concerns about the framework but in the end, “What we are trying to do . . . is help students understand all the information that they will be bombarded with.”

According to EdSource, conservative religious groups have been mobilizing parents to remove recommendations that deal with the sexual health of LGBTQ students and material aimed at young children. Hundreds of people attended a public hearing in March in Sacramento and many stood to express objections to the Instructional Quality Commission, which advises the state board and approved the new draft framework.

One woman, who identified herself as a “Christian soldier,” said: “This is something that is destroying our children. It will destroy our future children.”

Another woman read a Bible verse and said the draft framework is “straight from the pits of hell . . . Almighty God is going to judge all of us, rightfully."

The draft of the new framework says in part:

Grades kindergarten through three: Students can start to learn about gender differences and “challenge” gender stereotypes. “While students may not fully understand the concepts of gender expression and identity, some children in kindergarten and even younger have identified as transgender or understand they have a gender identity that is different from their sex assigned at birth.”

Grades four through six: It notes that an “estimated 3.1 percent of California high school students reported being sexually active before the age of 13 with rates increasing to 23 percent in high school.” And it says that teachers should provide opportunities for students to discuss any concerns they have with their changing bodies, and “should normalize sexual feelings and explain to students these feelings do not mean that students should feel pressured to participate in sexual activities.” Teachers should not shy away from discussions of masturbation and note that it is not harmful, if the subject is introduced.

Grades seven through eight: Students should learn “positive sexual health and healthy relationship practices and behaviors, including about consent, sexual abuse and exploitation. Educators play a key role in preparing students for this stage of adolescence.”

Grades nine through 12: “Setting a standards-based foundation of comprehensive sexual health knowledge such as anatomy and physiology, reproductive options, contraceptives and barrier methods and healthy relationships free from violence is proven to have a positive influence on academic performance and retention, pregnancy prevention and STI [sexually transmitted infections] and HIV prevention.”

A 2016 study about changes in sex education from 2006 through 2013 and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health said there were declines throughout the country in education given to students about birth control and other subjects around sexuality. And it said that only about half of adolescents get school instruction about contraception before they first have sex.