How to self-correct on school sex-ed mishaps

By Dr. Michael Bratland is a dentist and owner of Crisdental in Eugene, Oregon.  He’s a husband and the father of five of his own children and two foster children. He’s running for Eugene 4J school board this May.


Americans may not agree on much these days, but they agree that public schools should teach “sex education.” That debate ended years ago. So why are we seeing parents in an uproar and school communities from Eugene, Oregon to Miami, Florida enmeshed in controversy? Because the issue is now “comprehensive sex education” (CSE) and what passes for CSE in many classrooms and curricula.

Some of the definitions or elements of CSE are harmless enough. Oregon’s state- mandated CSE requires instruction must be “comprehensive, inclusive, not fear- or shame-based, medically accurate, and enhance students’ understanding of sexuality as a normal and healthy aspect of human development.” CSE is also cast as “science-based” and “age appropriate” instruction to prevent pregnancy and socially transmitted diseases. It can also be abstinence-based.

So what could go wrong?

Plenty, because this innocent, science-based verbiage allows for all kinds of instruction, assignments, suggested reading material that make plain that CSE can be about far more than facts-of-life of sex education. It can be hijacked by “educators” and interest groups that have far different views about sex and sexuality, age-appropriateness and appropriate sexual behavior – not to mention morality – than the parents of the kids they’re teaching.

In Eugene’s Churchill High, CSE meant assigning a sexual fantasies essay and a “With Whom Would You Do It? spinning wheel game. The spinning wheel featured various sexual acts, and students were asked to write the initials of classmates they’d like to engage in sexual activity they landed on. Elsewhere across the country, CSE has meant graphic middle school lessons on anal sex, oral sex and masturbation, and stick figures to illustrate body positions. It’s meant teaching seventh graders how to use cling wrap as a dental dam around their teeth for safe oral sex (Massachusetts), cartoon videos of a laughing clitoris, palm-sized models of a clitoris (San Francisco) and students putting condoms on anatomically correct penis models. (San Francisco). And we’re not even talking about the supplemental reading in school libraries and classrooms or controversial lessons on gender identity.

All this flies under the CSE banner.  You can’t blame rightly ticked off parents for thinking that there’s more going on here than just-the-facts of-life sex education. At its worst, CSE can become, as writer Betsy McCaughey recently put it, “an ideology or religion, stressing gender fluidity, sexual experimentation and pleasure-seeking while repudiating parents’ roles and traditional values.”

McCaughey went on to say that some families may share those views, but many don’t. Well, the many who don’t deserve to be heard in two ways.

One, school boards and school officials need to take their views into account when establishing their district’s health curriculum and supplementary materials. They’re the parents – they’re the first educators of these kids, and we should never forget that. They’re also part of the taxpaying public that funds the district. Our public schools cannot survive (or thrive) if they’re alienated on such an elemental issue from the parents and taxpaying public.

Two, once any sex-education curriculum is established, the district needs to ensure that parents at every grade level have full access to all materials associated with their child’s curriculum. That would include all possible assignments and exercises as well as reading materials (assigned, recommended and supplemental). All this should be available on-line, in the school libraries and at back-to-school nights. Only in this way will a parent’s right to opt-out their child from the school’s sex-ed instruction be truly meaningful. Radical transparency. Radical parental engagement. In fact, districts should probably require parents to opt-in their child when it comes to sex education, given how controversial the issue has become and given how some school districts have alienated parents on this issue. That’s at least what I’d like to see in my 4J school district, where the trust of parents has been lost in the Churchill High scandal.

You might remember the Sgt. Joe Friday character in the old “Dragnet” TV show. He’s (mis)remembered for this line when a witness got carried away when answering his questions: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Yes, we need sex education in our schools, but we need to stick to the biological basics as much as possible. Some educators and interest groups have gotten carried away in trying to use CSE to achieve their vision of sex and sexuality. They need to do that on their own time, not the school’s time. This will give our schools more time to improve student performance in reading, writing, math and other traditional academic subjects – something that test results indicate they’re failing to do in too many cases. In other words, “Just the Facts of Life” sex education.

Dr. Michael Bratland is a dentist and owner of Crisdental in Eugene, Oregon.  He’s a husband and the father of five of his own children and two foster children. He’s running for Eugene 4J school board this May.