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Clovis Unified district sued over abstinence-only sex education

The suit says the Fresno County district is violating state law and denying youths accurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

August 22, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

Central Valley teenager Taylor Ghimenti learned in her 9th grade sex education class that HIV-AIDS could be spread by kissing — a medically inaccurate statement. In the 2009 class, her mother said, Taylor was taught only about abstinence as protection against sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies and given no information about condoms or contraception.

That launched a quest by her mother, Mica Ghimenti, to change the Clovis Unified School District's high school sex education curriculum. On Tuesday, Ghimenti joined a lawsuit that alleges that the district is violating state law by teaching only about abstinence.

The lawsuit against Clovis Unified, which serves 39,000 students in Fresno County, alleges that the abstinence-only curriculum is risking young people's health by denying them accurate information about how to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

"I want there to be medically accurate, scientifically based education for all youth in Clovis Unified," said Ghimenti, a health education instructor. "If we don't give them the information, they won't be able to make good, healthy decisions."

Kelly Avants, Clovis Unified spokeswoman, said the district fully complies with state education law that promotes abstinence as "the only 100% surefire way to prevent pregnancy" and STDs.

Asked about allegations that the district omits information about condoms and contraception, Avants declined to comment.

She added that the conflict appeared to stem from "a question of differing interpretations of the depth and breadth of a school district's obligation to cover detailed sexual content in its family life materials. "

The lawsuit was filed in Fresno by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California on behalf of two parents in the district, the American Academy of Pediatrics California District IX and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. The law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett provided pro bono assistance.

The high school health textbook used in the district, the lawsuit alleges, teaches only that such behaviors as abstinence and "plenty of rest" can help prevent STDs.

The state Department of Education found that the textbook, "Lifetime Health" by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, did not meet legal requirements of a 2003 law that requires public schools to provide medically accurate, comprehensive information about HIV/AIDS prevention, the lawsuit alleges.

That law also requires that if sex education is provided, facts must be medically accurate, current and objective and that all Federal Drug Administration-approved methods of preventing pregnancy and STDs be included.

Fresno County has one of the highest teen pregnancy and birth rates in California. The Central Valley area also has one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

"As a nurse and parent, it is heartbreaking to see young people's health compromised," said Aubree Smith, parent of a 17-year-old daughter at Clovis High School who joined the lawsuit after what she said were two years of fruitless efforts to change the district's curriculum.

Jim Van Volkinburg, school board president, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because he hadn't seen it. But he added that he thought parents' concerns had been addressed.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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