Study Finds Sex Education Failing in California

Study Finds Sex Education Failing in California

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Carmen Ivarra immigrated from Mexico to Visalia, Calif., at 13, hopeful for a quality education. Her high school placed her in ESL classes. But as Ivarra soon discovered, all other courses were taught solely in English. For Ivarra, the classes covering health topics like sex education were especialy difficult to follow.

“Having the language barrier, it was hard for me to understand health classes,” said Ivarra, now 22. “The lack of information and services for Latinas and young women — it's amazing how many obstacles you have to go through.” Ivarra's school also combined sex education with driver's education classes. “The portion about sex-ed only lasted two days.”

The 2004 California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act (SB-71) promised to reform sexual education in California's high schools. The curricula was to be medically accurate, unbiased and available to English language learners. Schools would encourage communication about sexual health between students and parents.

Although 36 percent of the population in Visalia is Hispanic, bilingual information regarding sexual health is not made widely available to students.

Public schools in California are not obligated to offer sex education—but those that choose to teach it are required to provide medically accurate data, including information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Ivarra's school refused to do so, instead including abstinence-only in its curriculum. “We're number three in the state for teen pregnancies and (STDs),” Ivarra said. “Why are we abstinence only?”

Ivarra's story reflects a common experience among young women of color in California.

Ena Suseth Valladares, senior research coordinator for the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ), led a statewide research project on sexual education in California high schools, six years after the passage of SB-71. According to the report titled, “Young Women Speak Out!” the birth rate for young Latinas is 56.9 percent, higher than those of black females at 39.9 percent, and white females at 13.1 percent. Nationally, while Latinas and black females between ages 13 and 24 make up only 26 percent of the population, they represent 75 percent of those with HIV infections.

“Currently, the discourse around a lot of sexual reproductive issues surrounding youth deals a lot with blaming youth,” Valladares said. Solutions like abstinence-only education “are very limiting. The framework doesn't allow to delve into the issues in our communities... We need to figure out why it's happening in the first place.”

Valladeres interviewed more than 20 young Latinas who worked with youth groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Central Valley and Los Angeles. “We wanted to conduct our own research and lift these stories up to be heard,” Valladeres explained.

Personal accounts tell of outright discrimination from both the staff and the students. Many of the young women interviewed, particularly those in the Central Valley, reported being pressured into leaving their schools after becoming pregnant, or being relegated to the “pregnant sections.”

“I had a few friends who became pregnant and chose to transfer,” recalled Ivarra. “The other students—the pressure, the way they look at you, it's awful.”

Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, termination of childbirth, or recovery from those conditions is illegal under SB-71.

Veronica Bayetti Flores, senior policy analyst with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), notes an additional problem with abstinence-only education. “The teen pregnancy prevention model is not only stigmatizing but forgets about young women who are already parents. There's not a lot of work being done to make sure that young women who are parenting are able to complete school.”

For now, schools are not penalized for discriminating against pregnant students or teaching limited sexual education. “From our experience, it's really hard to get a hold of any evaluation,” Valladeres said. “It's not a priority to penalize high schools.”

Despite her findings, Valladeres remains optimistic. “What makes California really great is that we already have a lot of progressive policies and laws in place, so what we're calling out is that these laws get implemented,” she said.

In particular, CLRJ advocates for medically accurate education, including the discussion of birth control methods. “Prevention of STDs is much more cost effective than to treat them,” Valladeres explained. “It might be something very difficult for people to grasp — why would you call for more spending in California—but a lot of these (STDs) can lead to more adverse health outcomes.”

Valladeres also noted the importance of schools encouraging students to communicate with their parents about sex.

“Research has shown that parents do have an influence over their children's sexual behavior... We understand that sexuality is a touchy subject. If we want to provide the best health and education for our youth, we have to be willing to delve into those issues.

“Ultimately, we want healthy communities and we want people who can give back to society. If you invest in health and education, then everybody wins in the end.”


Nadia Prupis is an Editorial Intern with New America Media. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a BA in English, and has written for publications like The Onion, Gentry Magazine, and Drink Me Magazine.