January 4, 2015

The homophobic "hate group" trying to suppress sex education at Acalanes High School

In catching up on the controversy about sex education classes at my alma mater Acalanes High School, I came across a couple blog posts on the women's interest blog Jezebel. The posts depict our local high school district as being run by a pack of bigoted, homophobic sexual hysterics who are terrified that Planned Parenthood instructors are encouraging ninth-grade students to have sex and to experiment with being gay or transgender.

Lafayette may as well be situated on a “time-space glitch,” wrote Mark Schrayber. “Is there something in the water?”

I'm a 1981 graduate of Acalanes, and my father taught at Acalanes and was superintendent of the Acalanes Union High School District. My son attends another high school in the district. 

Part of me is amused that Lafayette, Walnut Creek (where I live and grew up) and other communities served by the school district have provoked hissy fits by pundits at Fox News and other conservative outlets.

But it's really not something to laugh about. How our kids learn about the mechanics of sexual health and the personal and societal dimensions of sexuality is serious business.

“Sex Education is possibly the most important course that can be taught to adolescents,” writes Acalanes High student Danny Ennis in the Blueprint, the school’s newspaper. “Without this class students would be reliant on awkward ramblings from their parents trying to inform but not condone sex, the lunch table rumor mill, and the wild, wild west of the Internet–so full of good information but also home to much misinformation.”

Adds another Acalanes student, Casey Lee, writing on the website, "My parents NEVER talked to me or taught me about sex. ... Being aware of and comfortable with our bodies and their functions are important messages, and the potential consequences of ignorance are too dangerous." 

Of the parents raising a fuss, some say they just want the district to keep them better informed about the course content. Fair enough. It shouldn't be that hard to work with the district and come up with ways for them to be better informed. 

But others have a basic problem with Planned Parenthood probably because it supports individual choice on abortion and reproductive health. Or, perhaps they have a problem with any program that gets kids talking honestly about sex and sexuality, including issues around consent, readiness for sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

In any case, a small group of parents protesting is one thing. But what parents and students in this community should be concerned about is that these parents have allied themselves with the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based legal organization. 

PJI may bill may bill itself as a generalist religious liberty advocacy group, but the organization specializes in combating efforts to protect gay rights and the rights of LGBT youth, especially in California public schools, according to Media Matters.

In fact, PJI is listed as a “hate group” by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the international nonprofit organization that monitors the activities of hate groups. Other hate groups on the center's list? The Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups.

PJI’s executive director Brad Ducas has become a well-known voice of anti-LGBT "fear mongering," calling homosexuality “dangerous and destructive." He has also represented clients who claim that "ex-gay" therapy is necessary to save youth from "a path of death and destruction,” Media Matters says. 

Ducas gained notoriety during the 2008 battle over California’s Proposition 8. He was filmed at a “Yes on 8” rally, comparing the defeat of marriage equality to the defeat of Nazi Germany. 

I should point out that Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda and Walnut Creek – the towns served by the Acalanes district – are hardly islands of anti-gay social conservatism. Contra Costa County Election results from 2008 showed that voters in these four towns overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 8, which temporarily banned same-sex marriage in California. In Lafayette, the "no on 8" votes outnumbered the "yes" votes 3 to 1. 

The controversy at Acalanes High began in October when a Walnut Creek mother raised concerns about Planned Parenthood teaching the classes, the Contra Costa Times reported. The mother Camille Giglio is said to be an ardent of Planned Parenthood and its pro-choice position. She said she represents a group of likewise concerned parents called No to Irresponsible Sex Education (NOISE). 

She accused Planned Parenthood of recruiting future clients, teenagers who presumably, in her view I guess, will go out and have lots of sex, get pregnant and go to Planned Parenthood for all their abortions. "They're accessing students to find present and future clients without parents understanding what is going on in the classroom," she said. 

The sex education courses for the freshman class took place the week of October 6. It’s the same course that’s been taught at the school for 10 years, Superintendent John Nickerson told the Times. “Our board has long supported comprehensive sexual health and HIV/AID prevention," Nickerson said.

Nickerson and Principal Allison Silvestri told the Times it is common practice to contract this curriculum out with Planned Parenthood because their people are more up-to-date than instructors at the school, and are often more comfortable talking with teenagers about the subject matter. 

Planned Parenthood has been in the business of providing comprehensive sex education for nearly 100 years. The organization says its comprehensive sex education covers a wide array of topics that affect sexuality and sexual health and is grounded in evidence-based, peer-reviewed science. 

Silvestri added that the school gave parents 10 days notice that the unit would be taught and provided information about topics covered. She said the instruction complied with the state Education Code.
Ducas and his PJI swooped in December to raise concerns about specific materials used in the class, which PJI and the NOISE parents said were encouraging ninth-graders to have sex. 

Fox News raised objections that the materials include a checklist entitled "Sex Check! Are You Ready for Sex" which asks students such questions as whether they have condoms and if they could handle a possible infection or pregnancy. Another worksheet reads like a "how-to" on obtaining a possible sexual partner, and offers possible statements like "Do you want to go back to my place?" and "Is it OK if I take my pants off?"

Matt McReynolds, a staff attorney with PJI, said: “I don't think there is any context in which these things are appropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds.”

Hmm. I wonder what professional expertise McReynolds has in sex and health education. Is he aware that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 20 percent of American ninth graders are sexually active? 

I would hazard he's as knowledgeable on the topic as Acalanes student Casey Lee, or Jezebel writer Schrayber who wrote: "Sounds like these worksheets, which literally ask students if they're prepared to face the consequences of an unexpected dalliance behind the bleachers, aren't inappropriate at all." 

But PJI and Fox News had objections on another topic: a gender identity chart called "the Genderbread Person," a figure resembling the holiday cookie that introduces students to concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity and defines terms such as "agender," or "bigender."

Do these parents and their legal allies seriously fear that that their kids will want to try out being gay or transgender because – I don’t know – a Planned Parenthood instructor told them that it’s OK to be gay or transgender.  Really? How bizarre is this line of thinking, given the potential bullying, harassment and rejection that LGBT kids sometimes face in society. Why would any young person go in any of these directions unless they were naturally inclined to do so?

The Times says the Acalanes School board listened to parents and students speaking for and against the course at a December meeting; the district is taking these comments "seriously,"Nickerson told the Times. The board will likely take up the issue again in April or May. PJI has also put in a public records act request to see if there are any other issues it will want to raise.

In the meantime, I want to return again to the points raised by the Acalanes students. Ennis pointed out that there have been numerous studies over the years showing that teenagers who receive comprehensive sex education are less likely to get pregnant or engage in high-risk behavior. 

Teen pregnancy rates in the United States peaked in 1990. Since then, the rates of teen pregnancy, birth and abortion have reached historic lows in all states and among all racial and ethnic groups. Ennis cites a study from the University of Washington showing that teenagers who receive some type of comprehensive sex education are 60 percent less likely to pregnant or get someone else pregnant.
A federal study from 2007 found that abstinence-only programs had “no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence,” Ennis wrote.

The Guttmacher Institute is a policy center that sometimes collaborates with Planned Parenthood, the National Institute of Health and other entities on advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights through research, policy analysis and public education.

In a September 2014 policy review, "What is Behind the Declines in Teen Pregnancy Rates?" the Institute found there is  “clear evidence” that comprehensive sex education programs – the kind advocated by the Acalanes Union High School District and provided by Planned Parenthood – can change behaviors. "Such programs have been shown to delay sexual debut, reduce frequency of sex and number of partners, increase condom or contraceptive use, or reduce sexual risk-taking," the review states. 

Ennis makes a point that perhaps the NOISE parents and their PJI legal advocates prefer to deny: “Sex is not going away. The fact is that humans, especially teenagers, will want to have sex, from as early as 9th grade. Suppressing sex education isn’t just wrong, it’s naive and it’s dangerous.”

November 18, 2014

Medical Center Diaries: William Shatner goes red-faced, snarls as arrogant cancer researcher

No quality TV drama of the 1970s would be complete without some scenery chewing by the great thespian WilliamShatner

The year after the original Star Trek TV show had finished up its third and final season, seemingly fated to an obscure footnote in TV history, Shatner guest-starred on Medical Center in March 1970, playing a brilliant but arrogantly single-minded researcher touting his new miracle cure for Hodgkin's disease

In a curious age, apparently before such things as an FDA approval process, Shatner's Dr. Eli Neily pushes for human trials of his drug at Medical Center. But Mr. Integrity Dr. Joe Gannon, played by Chad Everett, pushes back in a board meeting, raising concerns about such trifles as patient safety, evidence-based practices and “side effects.” 

“I cannot offer conclusions on a non-existent factor,” Shatner’s Dr. Neily sniffs. 

Minutes later, Shatner and Chad Everett’s Joe Gannon clash in the hall. “Don’t patronize me, Mister,” Shatner snarls, and he then goes red-faced and launches into full Shatner rage mode, as he did so memorably in “The Enemy Within,” one of Star Trek’s all-time greatest episodes. 

November 16, 2014

Medical Center Diaries: Breaking the silence

In 1969, child abuse and domestic violence were still taboo subjects for general discourse, yet Medical Center took them on with an episode ("Victim") about a 7-year-old boy who comes into Dr. Joe Gannon’s hospital with severe internal injuries. 

Dad says boy fell off an embankment, but skilled diagnostician Gannon suspects something more sinister. And the perpetrator isn’t who you’d expect. Above: Chad Everett as Gannon uses his kind, sensitive but straightforward bedside manner to get the boy’s mother, played by the wonderful Dyan Cannon, to open up about what’s really going on in her family.

This episode and five seasons of Medical Center are available for online streaming via Warner Archive, which also makes available thousands of rare, classic and other hard-to-find TV shows and classic films from the 1930s onward.