A Las Vegas area school district is apologizing to parents and dropping a set of resources from a national organization that specializes in designing comprehensive sex ed curricula, following a massive outcry from residents who were concerned about sexual health information potentially being taught in kindergarten.
The Clark County School District is anticipating a future state law that may require schools to implement more comprehensive sex ed. Lawmakers in Nevada have been trying to update the public schools’ health classes for several years by now, and they might succeed in the next legislative session.
In order to prepare for that potential policy change, school district officials began considering adopting some of the guidelines laid out in the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, a model curriculum published by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). For over five decades, that group has helped schools develop sex ed classes that include age-appropriate information about anatomy, birth control, sexually transmitted infections, gender identity, and healthy relationships.
When local parents learned that the district may rely on SIECUS’ guidelines, however, they were not pleased. They argued that the proposed material was too explicit for kids. One section in particular — a definition of “masturbation” for elementary school teachers, intended to give them tips about addressing the topic if they ever noticed kids touching their genitals — outraged the adults in the school district.
“You want to teach my 5-year-old how to masturbate?” one angry parent said at a Board of Trustees meeting at the end of September, during which dozens of concerned adults packed the room to express their displeasure with the model curriculum.
“We certainly should not be teaching five-year-olds that masturbation and pleasuring one’s body is good and that a 12-year-old should know about the very details of anal and oral sex,” another parent added.
In reality, SIECUS’ guidelines pertaining to kids between the ages of five and eight are simply about anatomy. The Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education doesn’t actually have any lesson plans about teaching kids how to masturbate; instead, the document provides a definition of the act for teachers in case they need to talk to their students about why they shouldn’t touch their genitals in the classroom. The guidelines state that “both boys and girls have body parts that feel good when touched” and “masturbation should be done in a private place.”
“The section that became the lightning rod here is about five lines of text,” Kurt Conklin, the director of programs for SIECUS, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “It’s just factual pieces of information about masturbation. The guidelines give teachers the tools to address it if the school district chooses to authorize them to answer students’ questions.”
It’s not at all unusual for young kids to touch their genitals, and health experts say it presents an important opportunity for adults to communicate that it’s a normal activity that shouldn’t take place in public. “Parents should acknowledge to the child that the behavior is a normal part of the child’s healthy growth and sexual development,” Deborah Roffman, a sexuality educator who’s written a book about how parents should talk about sex with their kids, once explained to the Los Angeles Times. “Then you introduce the concept of privacy.”
While supposed “kindergarten masturbation” sparked the biggest controversy, there were other objections to SIECUS’ materials, too. One parent at the meeting said she opposed the proposed material because it teaches kids that abortion is safe, a fact confirmed by multiple studies that she does not personally agree with. Other adults were concerned that a comprehensive sex ed class might include information about sexual assault or sexual orientation.
Now, the Clark County Superintendent has apologized to parents, many of whom felt left out of the decision making process about the potential changes to sex ed classes. In a letter addressed to the community, he promised that the school won’t be using SIECUS’ documents moving forward, and committed to surveying parents about their preferences in the area.
“SIECUS is disappointed that the superintendent feels it’s necessary to abandon the guidelines in their entirety,” Conklin said, pointing out that guidelines are intended to present the “widest range of possibilities” for schools to design a curriculum that works for them. Districts are welcome to pick and choose from SIECUS’ materials — which also include information on topics like abstinence, healthy relationships, and families — and Clark County officials were simply trying to begin the process of deciding which topics to include in their own schools.
Conklin said that while he believes school district officials are committed to improving sexual health education, their efforts were thwarted by a “small, vocal, unreasonably angry” group of constituents. “This does not model good behavior from adults for students to emulate,” he added. “The only message they get from this is that if you ask a question, you’re doing something wrong and need to be swatted down.”
It’s not uncommon for schools to back down after outrage about “explicit” sexual health information. Earlier this year, a California school district agreed to stop using a comprehensive sex ed textbook after parents compared it to pornography. A middle school in Kansas removed a poster intended to teach kids about different types of sexual acts — and their associated risks of sexually transmitted infections — after one parent went on Fox News to decry the “X rated” materials.
While this isn’t the first time that conservatives have raised concerns over so-called “kindergarten sex ed,” the idea that comprehensive sexual health instruction should begin at an early age is hardly radical. Experts recommend that sex ed classes should start in elementary school. Despite the concerns that this sexual content will spur kids to become promiscuous, there’s a wide range of evidence that students who receive comprehensive sex ed in school are more likely to delay sex, as well as have a better understanding of issues related to sexual violence and consent.