On June 1, more than 100 concerned parents and community members united in opposition to the adoption of the “Teen Talk” sex-ed curriculum by the Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD). The group gathered during the CVUSD school board meeting at the Conejo Valley High School, in Thousand Oaks, CA, to speak out against the board’s unanimous approval of the so-called “comprehensive sexual health materials for seventh and ninth grade students.”
Yet this highly sexualized choice of curriculum, which teaches, among other things, anal and oral sex, transgender ideology, as well as prioritizing sexual pleasure and a child’s “right” to sexual pleasure, appeared to be just one of several issues frustrating parents of the diverse Conejo Valley community.
During the public comment section of the board meeting, many took to the podium to voice their opinions and dissatisfaction with the district regarding controversial changes to curriculum, the handling of COVID, revisions to the dress code and the recent recommendation to teach “Teen Talk.”
Outraged Parents Demand To Be Heard
Addressing the six-member CVUSD board of trustees, parent Barton Jones emphasized that families are recognizing that the only way to protect their kids from the harmful teachings imposed on them in the public schools is to pull them out of the government-run system altogether.
“Every week, we meet amazing parents with good children who are opting out of these specific and related issues,” Jones said. “Parents are leaving [the district] in droves. What would CVUSD look like if half the families left, and those were children from good families who value education?”
Demanding answers about the new student-designed dress code, requiring that “clothes only cover the genitals, buttocks, and nipples,” mother Liz Pierce exclaimed, “This new code was implemented by the students, not evaluated by teachers or parents.”
“We elected you [school board members] to represent all students and families, not just these seven students and their correspondents.… Many conservative families will leave the district because of this new dress code and the ‘Teen Talk’ sex ed,” she said.
Mother-of-three, Marsha Blackmer, led off calmly, explaining to the board, “Coming from a Third World country, I have seen what Third World countries are. Public education is pretty much catered to the poor people and the uneducated.”
As Blackmer continued, her voice intensified: “With all the policies and politics you are forcing down our throats, [the school] is becoming more and more like my country, the countries we leave for more opportunities and because of danger…. You have to have some morals! You represent us, not yourselves or your private agendas!”
For more than an hour, dozens of distressed parents and citizens joined in the decrying of damaging policies enacted by the CVUSD board in recent months.
Yet, following the outcry, the board approved the adoption of “Teen Talk” in a unanimous vote of 5-0.
What Is “Teen Talk”?
In the state of California, the path to this new sexual education started with the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA), previously known as the California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act, signed into law on January 1, 2016. CHYA requires school districts across the state to ensure that all students in grades kindergarten through 12 receive “age-appropriate comprehensive sexual health education, with students in grades seven to 12 to receive HIV/AIDS prevention education.”
Throughout 2020-21, the CVUSD board has been subtly informing parents of their intent to implement an explosive sex-ed curriculum into the schools for the 2021-22 school year. According to agenda notes from the June 1 CVUSD board meeting, on January 26, 2021, the board approved three courses to be considered for adoption for middle school and high school sex-education curriculum: Positive Prevention Plus; Rights, Respect, Responsibility; and Teen Talk.
Allegedly, the school board took steps “to pilot and seek input from stakeholders across the district,” yet parents seemed suddenly to learn of the news just prior to June 1, as the school board prepared to vote the “Teen Talk” curriculum into existence.
Superintendent Dr. Mark McLaughlin would admit later in the board meeting that “Teen Talk” is not CHYA compliant. “There are a lot of gaps to be filled in,” he said.
One mother interviewed by the Conejo Guardian said that of the three curriculum choices, many parents were in favor of the Positive Prevention Plus program, and they had vocalized this to the school board early on. Yet those comments had little to no impact on the school’s choice, as “Teen Talk” was ultimately approved.
At the time of this writing, the “Teen Talk” curriculum was not available to review online. CVUSD Director of Middle Schools and Professional Development Kenny Loo noted during the meeting that copies would not be available to parents and educators unless it was licensed by the district. However, parents could read the curriculum on-site at specific school locations that purchased a copy.
“Teen Talk” offers a wealth of “activities,” among them “film guides.” Two choices were “Straightlaced,” aiming to help students “understand homophobia and transphobia as issues of discrimination,” and “A Place in the Middle,” seeking to encourage students to “define personal values on gender norms and understand homophobia and transphobia as issues of discrimination.”
The activity dubbed “Opinions About Abstinence” teaches that “abstinence means ‘not having sex,’ but that people’s definitions of sex and waiting to have sex are all different.” An activity titled “Giving Your Parents ‘The Talk’” tells children how to “identify a trusted adult in their life to talk about sex and gain skills for discussing the topic of sexuality and sexual health with adults.”
Local parents are outraged that their children would be encouraged to seek out adults other than parents to learn about sex and, according to the guide, the many ways to understand gender identity, i.e., that some people identify as a woman, others as a man, and still others as trans, non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid and other “identities” many consider spurious or meaningless.
One father in attendance at the board meeting blasted the curriculum as “a godless program,” stating that “Teen Talk” encouraged “ease of abortion access and failed to address abstinence.”
“Children should be taught to refrain from sex until they reach adulthood; yet, ‘Teen Talk’ encourages sexual promiscuity,” he said. “Rather than teaching our kids to honor and respect their bodies, and to have dignity as it pertains to their sexual relationships, this curriculum encourages promiscuity, exploration, and teaches children that sexual pleasure is their right.”
Critics of “Teen Talk” have called it an attack on conscience, confidence and faith, as well as extremely sexually explicit and suggestive. Yet board members defended their choice, arguing that teachers would ultimately create the lesson plans.
For those educators, one parent had a few poignant questions: “Is teaching kids how to have oral sex age-appropriate? What about seductive role-playing, models of vagina and penises, and how to seek out oral pleasure? Who teaches that stuff, and who thinks this is appropriate?”
As parents pleaded with the board to table the agenda and remove “Teen Talk” from consideration, the board gave no hint of a response, as their faces were shielded by masks. Parents and concerned citizens were allowed three minutes to speak.
A review of the materials included with the board meeting minutes — a proposal of the sexual health curricula, a summary of information, stakeholder feedback, and teacher and student recommendations, as well as a timeline for updating the sex curriculum according to CHYA guidelines and guidance from the Adolescent Sexual Health Work Group (ASHWG) — suggest that the board had no intention of reconsidering their decision to adopt “Teen Talk,” despite frustration and opposition from the community.
The Powerful Few, the Board Speaks
Following the public comment section, time was allotted for board members to address the issues just presented. However, none of the trustees spoke to a single concern of the people in attendance, illustrating a potentially serious disconnect between parents and the school board.
The CVUSD school board has stated the need for students and educators to work together, side by side, in deciding the educational goals for schools. Trustees began the next portion of the meeting by effusively lauding student school reporters for a job well done.
Board Clerk Karen Sylvester summarized an equity conference she attended in Ventura County, recalling a student panel on institutional racism and marginalized identities, featuring a speaker who is a student at the local high school and a member of the school’s equity task force.
“One of the [panel’s] primary messages,” said Sylvester, “is just how important it is for students to have their voices heard and how they need to and want to be in groups alongside educators. They [students] would like to see more conversations around race and identity and current events discussed in the classroom, and they feel there is tremendous value in having both teachers and students share their experiences and background and culture.”
Sylvester continued, “It was very affirming to hear the CVUSD student comment that she had seen some positive change in our district. She cited the work on the equity task force, our diversity, equity, and inclusion webpage, and the confidential reporting form.”
It remained unanswered what students would “confidentially report” and why Sylvester seemed to encourage students to inform on one another.
Trustee Lauren Gill said she would be “smiling like crazy under my mask,” during graduation and that “June is Pride Month. Love is love.”
Trustee Cindy Goldberg praised efforts by parents and teachers to accommodate COVID restrictions, noting how children were grateful for the “gift” to go back to school. Goldberg also praised the civics education program “We the People,” which she has been judging for decades. Of that program, Goldberg said, “They talked about civic engagement, and we had great conversations about individual rights and the common good…. It was really nice to hear students talk about the importance of remaining respectful and arguing the facts effectively to promote civil discourse.”
Board President Jenny Fitzgerald used her time to encourage people to get their vaccines: “I’m very thankful for that opportunity,” she said. “Hopefully, that [getting the vaccine] will help get us all back to a normal school year next year.”
Fitzgerald then wished everyone a “Happy Pride Month” and addressed one segment of the population directly: “I want to make sure that you know, as members of our LGBTQ+ community, you are loved and appreciated for who you are exactly as you are.”
Though mental health issues have skyrocketed for all teens during the past year, Fitzgerald focused only on a certain population: “As we celebrate this month, it’s a good reminder of another opportunity to continue raising awareness and working toward inclusiveness and equal rights for everyone and for a safe world for our LGBTQ community and for our students in our district.”
From Superintendent Dr. Mark McLaughlin came the reminder to fill out and return the learning model preference survey. “It’s great information for us as we prepare for the next school year.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
According to the National School Boards Association, “the most important responsibility of school boards is to work with their communities to improve student achievement in their local public schools. School boards derive their power and authority from the state. In compliance with state and federal laws, school boards establish policies and regulations by which their local schools are governed.”
Thus, school boards are driven by the state and seem increasingly disconnected from local parents or children, as demonstrated at the recent school board meeting.