By Manny Sandoval
The state of sexual education for some of San Bernardino County's most vulnerable students is "abysmal," according to many former students. The plight of students with intellectual disabilities (IDD) has been a primary concern, given their increased vulnerability to exploitation and sexual abuse.
Faviola Mercado, Community Education Manager at Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, described the current system as "greatly lacking." She said, "It's required that all students be educated in sexual health. The changes applied recently expanded what sex ed looks like in public schools. However, this is often carried out in a haphazard manner, with some schools teaching it in health, some in PE, and some in science classes. There should be a designated class that covers sex education comprehensively."
Addressing the 2016 California Healthy Youth Act, Mercado said, "The law requires that comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education be taught at least once in middle and high school. But what we're seeing, particularly in the case of students with IDD, is a gross failure in its implementation.
A study shows that when young people have comprehensive information about birth control methods and safe sex, they will likely delay sexual activity. Furthermore, when they engage, they tend to practice safer sex, which helps prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Mercado emphasized the need for increased sexual education among students with intellectual disabilities. "This population is often viewed as easy targets by predators due to their disability. This could be because they are less likely to identify and effectively communicate the abuse. Sometimes they're less likely to report it because they feel no one will believe them, and sometimes they do not have the words to express it.”
To address this, Planned Parenthood launched the Equal Voices program, which aims to bridge the gap between the current state of sexual education and a healthier, more comprehensive under-standing. Equal Voices provides tailored education for youth with IDD, helping them identify healthy and unhealthy relationships, understand bodily autonomy, and effectively communicate abuse.
Mercado stated that teachers, parents, and caregivers do not have to do it alone. "We identify that gap and need for education. We adapted our general education to suit youth with IDD. Our expert educators go into the classes and teach the portion on sex ed. We offer teacher development training. Our educators can go and gauge the room and be able to adapt the material needed for each classroom as needed."
This education is free of cost for public schools and government agencies and is also available in Spanish for parents and caregivers.
The success of Equal Voices has been monumental. "It continues to increase year after year. Especially after California's Healthy Youth Act, it has continued to increase. This year we have reached almost 700 people with IDD," said Mercado.
Despite the California Healthy Youth Act, many students report not learning about STI prevention and symptoms, birth control, their rights, caring for their sexual health, healthy relationships, issues of sexuality or gender identity, or anything else beyond "the basic mechanics."
These students have access to more information than any generation before them. Still, their STI rates are climbing, and they often report not knowing precisely what to believe when they find information online or on social media.
The Equal Voices curriculum is adapted to PPOSBC's existing high school and middle school lessons. The curriculum includes Healthy Relationships & Consent, Puberty & Anatomy, Pregnancy & Birth Control, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Gender & Sexual Orientation, and Online Safety & Safer Social Media.
"The only difference is that they include fewer words and more pictures for PPOSBC's expert Health Educators to adapt to the class. In addition, this allows them to add more or less information to each topic based on where the students are developmentally," Mercado explained.
The program also focuses on topics relevant to students with adaptive needs, such as "good touch/bad touch" and the difference between public and private spaces. "When the teacher identifies participants as having a higher cognitive level, PPOSBC allows a standard middle or high school presentation. The content remains the same, but the Health Educator adapts the tone and delivery to meet the class's needs," Mercado added.
But despite the strides made by Equal Voices, Mercado acknowledges there is still much work to be done.
"STI rates are rising nationwide among adolescents, and according to the CDC, a major culprit is a lack of comprehensive sexual education.
Parents and caregivers play a crucial role in this education, and PPOSBC encourages active participation. "We offer a parent preview so they can view the materials before they are given the education. We take that opportunity to encourage parents and caregivers to continue this education at home and be that trusted adult," said Mercado.
The goal of Equal Voices and comprehensive sex education is not just to prevent sexual abuse, exploitation, and unwanted pregnancies. It's also about empowering students with the know-edge they need to make informed decisions about their bodies and lives.
May is Sex Ed for All Month, which reminds us of the importance of comprehensive sex education and the gaps in our schools' curricula that contribute to the rise in STI rates and other adverse outcomes.
It is a call to action to address these shortcomings and ensure the most vulnerable students feel empowered with knowledge about their bodies.
Mercado said, "We strongly believe that everyone deserves access to sexual education, and it can save a person's life." However, the fight for comprehensive, inclusive sex education is far from over, and for organizations like Planned Parenthood and advocates like Mercado, every step forward is a victory.
In a world where information is abundant yet misinformation is rampant, students must have access to accurate, comprehensive, and accessible sexual education.
Equal Voices is one such initiative bridging the gap. Still, the collective effort of schools, parents, and society is needed to ensure that no student, regardless of their abilities, is left in the dark.