Since taking effect on January 1, 2016, a significant element of the California Healthy Youth Act has been its recognition of the right of parents to supervise their children’s sexual health education. In acknowledging this right and responsibility, the Act requires schools to notify parents and guardians about the planned instruction, allows parents and guardians to review materials in advance of the instruction, and permits them to excuse their children from participation in all or part of the sexual health education, HIV prevention education, and assessments related to that education. While the law’s deference to parents is commendable, there is ambiguity as to the extent of the “opt out” provision’s reach.    

In particular, there has been some recent confusion and concern in several California public school districts about whether the “opt out” provision applies to instruction involving discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation. The confusion stems from a seemingly conflicting provision in the HYA (Section 51932(b)), which states that the law (and therefore the “opt-out” provision) “does not apply to instruction, materials, presentations, or programming that discuss gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation, relationships, or family and do not discuss human reproductive organs and their functions.”  The Orange County Board of Education has taken the position that if sex education instruction is offered in “separate modules” and one those modules discusses gender identity or sexual orientation without reference to reproductive organs or functions, then parents are not permitted to excuse their children from that particular module or discussion. 

As the scope of parental rights under the HYA is unclear, parents should use this as an opportunity to contact their schools and school districts to request clarification and to advocate for parental rights to be protected to the fullest extent.  This responsibility of parents is affirmed both by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2223), which acknowledges parents as the primary educators of their children, and the HYA itself, which, as mentioned above, recognizes that “parents and guardians have the ultimate responsibility for imparting values regarding human sexuality to their children.”

Talking points/questions to ask local school boards

  • How and when are parents notified about the planned instruction in comprehensive sexual health and HIV prevention education?
  • Does the “opt out” provision apply to instruction involving all discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation?
  • If not, to which classes discussing gender identity/sexual orientation does the “opt out” provision apply?
  • Who determines whether the instruction and materials are “age appropriate” (especially at the elementary school level)?
  • Do the instruction and materials include information about abstinence?  (According to the CA Department of Education website, “abstinence may not be discussed in isolation from other methods of preventing HIV, others STIs, and pregnancy.  The Education Code requires that instruction and materials include information that abstinence is the only certain way to prevent HIV, other STIs, and unintended pregnancy.  However, it also states: ‘Instruction shall provide information about the value of delaying sexual activity while also providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.’  (EC Section 51934(a)(3)).  ‘Abstinence-only’ sex education, which offers abstinence as the only option for preventing STIs and unintended pregnancy, is not permitted in California public schools.”)

Full story at California Catholic Conference.