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Fremont nixes sex-ed for elementary students

by Alex Madison

Fremont school board Vice President Michele Berke
Fremont school board Vice President Michele Berke  

In a blow to many LGBT advocates, the Fremont Unified School District voted against adopting a controversial new sex education program for fourth through sixth graders at a special meeting May 2.

Advocates for comprehensive sex education for elementary school students said having LGBT-inclusive instruction can prevent bullying, increase awareness and acceptance, and create a generation of informed youth, while opponents felt the content is "too much, too soon" for elementary-aged children.

After hours of deliberation in a room filled with parents and community members, the Fremont Board of Education voted 3-2 to adopt the comprehensive sex-ed program for seventh through ninth grade students and exclude sex education entirely for elementary school students. More than 100 people spoke at the meeting that lasted until almost 2 a.m. (The school board posted video of the meeting on its website.)

The sex education curriculum known as the Three Rs: Rights, Respect, Responsibility includes education about LGBT identities, including transgender people, gender fluidity, and sexual orientation. The content also addresses some emotional aspects of sexual activity and rape.

"In general, there were some members of the board who believed that there was inappropriate content in the four-six [grade] curriculum," Michele Berke, vice president of the school board, wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter.

Berke advocated for the sex-ed program for both elementary and middle school students. "Rather than allowing parents to opt-out, the decision was made to not provide it at all. It is very disappointing that our elementary students will not get the education that they need and deserve," she wrote.

School board member Desrie Campbell, who does not support the Three Rs for elementary school students, said at the meeting, "If we had a curriculum that was more age appropriate then perhaps we wouldn't be having this conversation."

The California Healthy Youth Act of 2016 currently requires all school districts to teach sex education in seventh through 12 grades that includes information about gender identity, sexual orientation, HIV prevention, and the harm of negative gender stereotyping. Elementary school children are not required by law to undergo sex education in public schools, although authorized, and parents can opt their children out of any sex-ed program at any age.

Up until the vote, sex education had been taught in Fremont schools to fifth and sixth graders since the 1980s and to fourth graders since 2011, according to KQED. The board's vote May 2 to adopt sex-ed for seventh through ninth graders was required in order to comply with California law.

Parents, community members, and some students spoke passionately at the podium. Many talked about the importance of a comprehensive sex education program that includes LGBT information, citing the support of health professionals, while others claimed the Three Rs content eroded family values.

An advocate for the Three Rs instruction and a parent of FUSD students, Dianne Jones, said at the meeting, "Diversity in all forms is to be celebrated and not ridiculed ... It is important to listen to diverse ideas. I implore you to not deny access to this critically important sexual health content to the students and families who want and need it just because those who can opt out are unhappy with that legally available option."

Carol Zilli, an educator for more than 30 years and a former member of the Fremont Unified School District Health and Sex Education Advisory Committee, said she felt the sex education program is damaging to what she called the family unit and used the teaching of gender identity as an example of that.

"It is stated to the teachers in Three Rs 'help them to challenge the gender norms that have been taught to them from their earliest ages.' This is a perfect example of the erosion of the family values," Zilli said at the board meeting.

Brian Davis, a gay man, works in Fremont at the Tri-City Health Center as a tobacco control program coordinator and runs the Just for Us: LGBT Tobacco Prevention Project. He spoke at the May 2 board meeting on behalf of 35 LGBT organizations, which support comprehensive sex education for elementary school children.

He read a statement that said, "Learning about gender and gender identity is important for all students, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. But it is critical for students who are transgender, especially as they approach puberty."

Among the 35 organizations are the Queer South Asian National Network, Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network, and Equality California.
"Too often, LGBTQ students are made to feel invisible, or worse, like they don't belong in health classes," Equality California legislative manager Jo Michael wrote in an email to the B.A.R. "LGBTQ?inclusive education provides all students with an opportunity to learn accurate information about LGBTQ people and families. We hope that the school board will listen to parents, students, and leaders like Congressman Ro Khanna and reconsider this decision."

Khanna (D-Fremont) decried the decision in a Facebook post, which said, "Sex education is critical for the safety of individuals of all ages, and this policy will silence voices, put students in danger, and increase overall risk in our communities."

Davis talked about his experience as a gay youth, discovering he was gay when he was a fourth grader, and said at the time he knew his feelings for another boy were not accepted in society. If he had had a sex-education program that taught him and his peers about the LGBT community, it could have progressed the acceptance of his LGBT identity he feels.

"Like many of us, for many years, we have denied or attempted to not be gay, which was particularly damaging to me in a lot of ways and stunted my emotional growth," Davis, who does not have children in the Fremont Unified School District, said in an interview. "At the fourth-grade level, children are not too young to be hearing this message."

Davis said there were many young people at the board meeting who shared similar stories and expressed how important a comprehensive sex-ed program is for the health and safety of LGBT youth.

One of those students is Sameer Jha, a gender flux queer 16-year-old. Jha went to middle school in Fremont at Hopkins Junior High where he faced severe bullying for his identity. He originated the gay-straight alliance club at the middle school, which today is very successful.

Jha said his bullying came from youth who were ignorant and not informed about the LGBT community, something that can be mitigated through the Rights, Respect, Responsibility curriculum, which Jha said would teach students that it's normal to have different sexual orientations and gender identities and that LGBT people are equally deserving of respect and love.

"Sex education is a way to get information to students and to show LGBT students that they are important and valued by the school and its curriculum," he said in a recent interview with the B.A.R. "It's a great way to prevent bullying."

The Fremont school district, in the future, will consider other recommendations for a new sex-ed program to be implemented in elementary schools next year.
Fremont school board Vice President Michele Berke

Contact the reporter at a.madison@ebar.com.

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