Condoms, birth control pills, IUDs, implants and other contraceptives were passed around during P.E. teacher Ron Smare’s fourth period freshmen class in early September. The objects were part of the school’s sex ed curriculum.
At the end class, students submitted anonymous questions into a bucket that will be at the beginning of the following class. Sex ed teacher Sandra Sotiriadis, whose company, Health Connected, is contracted by the district, even showed students the implant she has in her arm.
The candor of the talks hasn’t always been like this. Sex education at Branham has faced many changes over the past five years because of California Education Code mandates and tightening of funds in the district, directly affecting students because learning about sex provides information that students can use at any point they are engaged in relationships of any kind, including sexual.
The changes haven’t stopped. Next year the district will no longer be hiring Health Connected because of the cost. P.E. teachers from every school have been trained by Health Connected over the past three years, and will be leading the sex ed curriculum.
P.E. teachers such as Smare, who had taught health education when it was offered as a class, feel more comfortable teaching the curriculum the next year. However, there is concern for those who have never taught sex ed before despite their training.
Sotiriadis of Health Connected said that a teacher’s prior personal experiences and beliefs may impair their ability to teach the curriculum as intended—judgment-free and respectful of others’ sexual identities and experiences.
“They may have these biases or personal values that will conflict with what they are required to teach, so it may be challenging for some P.E. teachers in the district,” said Sotiriadis.
To fully understand these changes, it’s necessary to have context on what sex ed used to be at Branham.
In 2015, the program was a three-pronged approach that used outside organizations—Real Options, Positively Positive and the Young Women’s Christian Association’s team empowerment—in addition to supplemental information provided by physical education teachers.
Real Options seemed like a good resource to the district because it offered its sex ed presentations for free. However Real Options promoted an anti-abortion, abstinence-based agenda, violating state education codes on sex ed, even though P.E. teachers said they had monitored the organization “with an eagle eye” during presentations, according to
Smare. The organization also came under scrutiny due to its financial ties to Christian organizations.
“When Real Options came, they would talk about abortion a little bit, but they would try to steer towards things like, ‘It would be better if you kept the kid,’” said Smare, who added that P.E. teachers supplemented the Real Options talks with information about abortion.
A new sex ed law went into effect January 2016, mandating sex education in grades 7 to 12, leading the Bear Witness to investigate the Real Options’ presentations that promoted anti-abortion practices. Once district administrators found out about the pending report, the school decided to suddenly cancel the presentation.
The news stirred some chaos, because without Real Options, the teachers must now take up the teaching sex ed to the freshman class, who are now seniors. Smare took on the responsibility.
“When they [Real Options] went away, we took it on and picked it up ourselves,” he said, “I remember doing a presentation with a portion of information in that. It was quick though, we didn’t spend a lot of time on it.”
Senior Samantha Rocheville remembers the presentation and said that it fell short in providing a comprehensive sex education.
“I remember that people were super confused because Mr. Smare started talking about something about how losing your virginity isn’t about sex… something like oral sex, that would be considered losing your virginity,” said Rocheville.
After the district removed Real Options from presenting in 2016, it hired Health Connected, formerly known as Teen Talk, to provide sex ed to freshmen.
During class, freshmen learned about the different forms of birth control, including hormonal implants, pills and abstinence. Information about sexual identities, relationships and respect were also included in presentations. Sex anatomy was also covered with coloring pages and vocabulary.
This curriculum shares some similarities with that of prior years, touching upon topics such as HIV
Juniors and sophomores said that the two week curriculum from Health Connected was suitable.
Sophomore Olivia Merriam said that she appreciated the candid talk on gender and sexual identity. She said her middle school program focused more on sexual anatomy.
“The more we talk about it, the less taboo it is,” Merriam said.
She also commended the program for its consent portion, and ensuring that partners know how to respect each other when engaging in sexual activity.
“It’s important to me that there are clear boundaries about what consent is and what consent is not,” she said.
Sotiriadis, who has a masters in Sexuality Studies, stresses the importance of consent in the sex curriculum.
“It not only leads to healthier relationships and better communication, but less crime, people feeling more respected, people understanding boundaries,” she said. “While the ‘science-y’ things like STIs and birth control are important, (consent) is just a lot more real.”
In the Health Connected curriculum, they teach consent through roleplaying. Students act out different scenarios and the class will decide if both parties consented or not. In their terms, consent can’t be
given under the influence of alcohol or drugs and must be explicit, meaning that an absence of a “no” does not mean consent.
P.E. teachers, who will be taking up sex education in their classes next year, will continue consent and other topics. Sex education for freshmen this year will be taught until early October.