by Ariana Rodriguez
The California Healthy Youth Act is California’s sexual health education law, which was passed in 2015. It requires school districts to provide students with integrated, accurate, and unbiased comprehensive sexual health and HIV prevention education at least once in middle school and once in high school. Over three years after the law’s passage, many districts across the state have already updated their comprehensive sexual health and HIV prevention education. However, upcoming expansion of the California Healthy Youth Act to charter schools and current revisions to critical state-level guidance around health education have resulted in renewed interest from community members and school districts in the law and how it should be implemented.
The California Healthy Youth Act, Cal. Educ. Code §§ 51930-51939, includes broad baseline requirements for how comprehensive sexual health education must be taught, at any grade in which it is delivered, as well as specific content requirements for mandated instruction in grades 7–12. Under the law, districts are allowed, though not required, to teach comprehensive sexual health education prior to seventh grade, so long as it is done in an age-appropriate way. Research supports age-appropriate sexual health education early and often and shows that early sexual health education lays a foundation for instruction on more complex and developmentally advanced topics in later grades.1
Before the California Healthy Youth Act was passed, school districts were only mandated to teach HIV-prevention education. If a district voluntarily decided to provide sexual health education, it was required to be comprehensive, medically accurate, and age appropriate. “Abstinence-only” education, which offers abstinence as the only option for preventing sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy, has not been permitted in California public schools since 2004. A 2011 study from the University of California, San Francisco found that many California schools did teach some HIV prevention education as well as sexual health education, but that the instruction was out of compliance with then-existing law. Over one‐quarter of surveyed schools omitted required HIV prevention topics, and 16% even taught the medically inaccurate information that condoms are not effective.2 The California Healthy Youth Act was necessary to streamline requirements around sexual health education and provide school districts with clearer guidance on how to deliver consistent instruction that support young people in making informed decisions about their health and relationships.
In addition to creating a state mandate for sexual health education, the California Healthy Youth Act introduced other much-needed reforms to sex education in California—in particular, affirmative inclusion of LGBTQ students and a more holistic approach to sexual health education. The California Healthy Youth Act requires comprehensive sexual health education to affirmatively recognize that people have different sexual orientations and to provide information about gender, gender identity, gender expression, and the harms of negative gender stereotypes. California schools have an affirmative legal obligation to prevent bias-based bullying, harassment, and discrimination, and to create a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Cal. Educ. Code §§ 201, 220, 234.1. Studies show that a diverse curriculum that includes LGBTQ-related issues and is inclusive of diverse groups benefits all students by creating a more positive school climate and instilling in students a belief in the intrinsic worth of all individuals.3 The California Healthy Youth Act also reinforces a focus on healthy attitudes, healthy behaviors, and healthy relationships, adding specific requirements about sexual harassment, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking. In the aftershocks of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the California Healthy Youth Act represents a unique and timely opportunity to engage young people in critical conversations about consent and boundaries.
Eighty-nine percent of California parents support comprehensive sexual health education that includes information about prevention methods for HIV, other STIs, and unintended pregnancy—support that remains consistent regardless of the parents’ locale, religion, politics, race or education level.4 The California Healthy Youth Act recognizes the indispensable role parents, guardians, and other trusted adults play in preparing a student for the future. The law explicitly requires that comprehensive sexual health education instruction encourages students to communicate with their parents or other trusted adults, as well as provides the information and skills necessary to do so. The law also requires that districts notify parents and guardians before the commencement of instruction, including information about who will be providing the instruction and information about a parent or guardian’s rights to view instructional materials and opt their student out of instruction.
Although the California Healthy Youth Act was passed in 2015, recent changes to the law and the guidance around it have sparked renewed curiosity—and in some circles, renewed tensions—among community members about comprehensive sexual health education. Starting next school year, the California Healthy Youth Act will be expanded to charter schools.5 On May 8, 2019, California’s State Board of Education took a final vote on the Health Education Curriculum Framework, a document published by the California Department of Education that provides guidance to educators, administrators, and parents on how to teach health education in a way that aligns with California’s Health Standards and meets the requirements of the law. At the time of this writing, the draft of the Framework being considered by the Board includes robust coverage of the California Healthy Youth Act and also significant guidance for educators and administrators on how to make health education accessible and inclusive for LGBTQ students, English Learners, students in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, and migrant students. The Framework itself is not intended to be used as curriculum for classroom instruction, but represents the state’s strong recommendations for how health education, including comprehensive sexual health education, should be taught in California classrooms.
In 2015, a California court held that “access to medically and socially appropriate sexual education is an important public right.”6 Studies show that science-based comprehensive sexual health education, when it supports a diverse range of young people, helps students become healthier and more successful adults. It leads to lower STI rates, fewer unplanned pregnancies, better self-esteem, healthier relationships, and many more benefits. The education community—including the California Teachers Association—and the vast majority of California parents support fact-based comprehensive sexual health education because they know it has many benefits for students. With comprehensive sexual health instruction at school, plus guidance from parents and other trusted sources, young people can grow into healthier and more successful adults.
Ariana Rodriguez is a legal fellow with the ACLU who works on implementation of CYHA standards in Southern California.