Let’s talk about sex … education in Palo Alto schools

by Michelle Higgins and Laura Prentiss

There has been a lot of talk in the Palo Alto school community of late about cultural sensitivity in relation to the sex education curriculum in our middle schools. Today we would like to shift gears and talk about the culture of misogyny that is harming our girls on a daily basis. It is the culture that saw Paly principal Phil Winston get away with sexually harassing students and teachers without real consequence and then saw our community come out to defend and minimize his actions in a way that calls into question our collective commitment to the well being and safety of our students.

And now, we have learned that at least three local girls, at least one a Paly student, have made allegations that they have been the victims of sexual assault at the hands of a male classmate. The assaults didn’t take place in a dark alley, they occurred on the high school campus, at a local church, and at a party. If this does not shock our district into taking seriously its responsibility to educate our students about healthy relationships, sexual assault and consent then we have to ask, what will?

The Health Connected middle school curriculum must be retained in full, and the scenarios that have already been removed to appease the demands of a vocal and well organized group of parents must be returned. These parents, while well-intentioned, are clearly unaware of the overwhelming body of evidence that supports this curriculum, with research showing that students who receive the type of medically accurate, comprehensive and inclusive sex education that Health Connected provides are more likely to: delay the onset of sexual activity; have fewer partners when they do become sexually active; and practice safe sex protocols resulting in lower rates of STIs and fewer unintended pregnancies.

Perhaps these parents are also unaware of the string of serious sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents that have occurred in the Palo Alto school district over the past few years. Or the data that shows that Palo Alto students are no different to teens across the country, engaging in risk taking behaviors involving sex, alcohol and other drugs from as early as 5th grade.

Students need to understand far more than the biology of sex, they need the anticipatory guidance to help them distinguish healthy relationships from unhealthy and abusive relationships. And they need to be taught about consent explicitly, in ways that counter the messages that they are absorbing from the broader culture.

The school board must resist pressure to roll back or water down the Health Connected curriculum. And they must refuse to put the program on hold while a review committee ties itself in knots trying to achieve the impossible task of producing a legally compliant curriculum that will please everyone.

The district needs to get to work now, expanding the Health Connected program into both the lower and upper grades. Let’s start these important conversations with our students about consent and healthy relationships in kindergarten rather than 5th grade. And let’s reach our students every 2 to 3 years, catching them as they hit new developmental milestones, rather than a total of 3 times over 13 years of schooling.

It is never too early to start having these conversations with our students, but tragically it is often too late.

Michelle Higgins and Laura Prentiss have a combined total of 7 children attending PAUSD schools, including 3 at Paly. Michelle studied Politics and Law in Australia and after immigrating to California worked in a domestic violence agency. Laura has a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University and has worked as a counselor in the areas of rape-crisis, substance abuse and general mental health issues. She currently sits on the Donor Advised Board for the Mid-Peninsula YWCA and conducts classes for parents on how to talk to their children about sex.