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Last June, only 25 parents attended an informational meeting to view a new sex education textbook chosen unanimously by Fremont, Calif., health teachers for use with incoming freshmen. Some parents didn’t know about the meeting, especially if they are not on the Fremont Unified School District’s email system. Others said they received the invitation but ignored it amid the flurry of graduation and end-of-the-school-year activities.
Asfia Ahmed and Teri Topham, both mothers of ninth-graders in district schools, did attend the 90-minute meeting. They became acquainted as they sat at the same table and took turns flipping through the 392-page Your Health Today, a college-level text according to many bookseller websites. Topham, 49, said she and Ahmed grew “appalled” as they browsed chapters: “What we saw was adult content that is totally inappropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds.”
But two weeks later—and with little fanfare—the district’s board approved the new text to replace a decade-old one.
Fast-forward two months: Over 250 people—mostly parents—filled to fire-capacity a board meeting room and overflow rooms. Others stood outside after being turned away. Many held yellow signs reading “Remove College Text,” and sparred with a smaller group waving green signs saying, “I support comprehensive sex education.” During the six-hour meeting, the board reversed its June decision and voted to shelve the book, asking staff members to work with publisher McGraw-Hill to revise it.
The story of this surprising reversal starts with eight parents, including Topham and Ahmed. After the June meeting they bought copies of the text and emailed friends, urging them to invite other parents—regardless of their viewpoints—to come see it for themselves.
Word spread as parents filtered in and out of homes and passed around the text or purchased their own copies. Parents sent letters to the district and board; circulated both online and paper petitions; and gathered signatures at the library, neighborhood block parties, and other social gatherings. A few parents, including Ahmed and Sally Hu, threatened the board with legal action, claiming the book violated a state law that says health materials must be “age appropriate” for the district’s 2,400 ninth-graders.
When reporters picked up on parents’ efforts, the diverse Bay Area city just north of San Jose became a focal point. In several days the petition jumped from hundreds of signatures to more than 2,500.
I bought a copy of Your Health Today, which McGraw-Hill spokesperson Brian Belardi told me was “developed with [a college] audience in mind.” He said in an email that “several” K-12 districts use the text, but he would not give locations.
The book blandly covers topics like health, nutrition, and fitness but serves up big helpings of specific detail on many sexual practices and stages of sexual arousal. Info graphs list the pros and cons of various dating websites and contraceptives. Statistics normalize behaviors such as how frequently college students drink alcohol and have sex in a given month (a majority) or how many men are willing to pay for a prostitute (1 in 6). It states that women mostly experience “relief” after a 10-minute abortion procedure, with only 20 percent exuding “mild, transient, depressive symptoms” similar to those felt after childbirth.
Five years ago the Fremont district discontinued its abstinence-only education after the ACLU threatened a lawsuit. Now, the district “has gone too far,” according to Sally Hu, 40, who has an eighth-grade daughter. “This book says little about making good choices—it’s more about telling our kids what everything is and how common it is.”
Although the board requested a report back on the book’s revision process by January, parents continue to have questions. “I don’t see how they can edit it and make it appropriate for teens and adolescents without rewriting half the chapters,” said Ahmed, who is also concerned that parents will be left out of the approval process.
California standards begin covering sex education in fifth grade, or at about age 10, but parents are allowed to opt their children out for religious reasons, or choose to have their kids sit in the library during the class’ sex portion.
Hu, Ahmed, and Topham have never opted their kids out, but each said they would if the board adopts the new text. When asked why they went a step further to rally parents, Hu says, “Maybe it’s a maternal thing … we care about more than just our own children. This book does nothing to strengthen the family or challenge kids to aspire higher. It takes them to the lowest place and says it’s OK.”