Amid high STD rates, Fresno Unified considers the return of sex ed

Diana Aguilera is a multimedia reporter from Chile working for NPR’s member station Valley Public Radio in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She mostly focuses on health and minority community issues for the weekly radio news program “Valley Edition” as a project for the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Other stories in this series include: 

HIV infections in Fresno County increase, especially among youth

Fresno, Kern counties have highest rates of babies born with syphilis in California

Even in rural Fresno County, STDs remain a concern

Fresno County continues to be plagued with high teen pregnancy rates and even higher STD rates in some cases among the worst in the state. With that in mind  local health leaders are urging one Valley school district to bring back sex education to the classrooms. As FM89’s Diana Aguilera reports even former students are speaking up.

Antonio Jauregui, 18, says his freshman year at Fresno’s Duncan Polytechnical High School was all about growing up. It’s also when he had his first romantic relationship and that left him turning to the classroom for information about sex.

"Just in my household questions about sex, birth control or relationships they don't really come up and if you do have a question you're expected to go somewhere else." -Antonio Jauregui

"Just in my household questions about sex, birth control or relationships they don't really come up and if you do have a question you're expected to go somewhere else." -Antonio Jauregui

“They didn’t really bring up STDs," he says. "They never mentioned condoms, barriers, birth control or anything like that.”

That’s because Fresno Unified School District used to offer a class called Sociology for Living where students learned about some sexual health topics and relationships. But Fresno Unified - the state's fourth-largest district- canceled it in 2011 leaving students looking for other ways to learn.

“Probably the place we got the information wasn’t always the best," Jauregui says. "Even some friends think it’s smarter to use two condoms, they don’t know the right information.”

Jauregui is now a youth health counselor for Fresno Barrios Unidos, which is urging the district to restore the class.

STD Crisis

In a recent board meeting, Fresno Unified officials discussed the idea of bringing back sex education to the classrooms. Local public health officials applaud the conversation yet they wonder why it took so long.

Dr. Brent Feudale is a UCSF Fresno pediatric resident. During his residency, he worked with a group of girls from Fresno High School.

“The vast majority of questions that these girls had were simply about pregnancy," Feudale says. "How do I get pregnant? How do I prevent getting pregnant? I’m taking the pill does that prevent sexual transmitted infections?"

What worries health officials are the numbers. Fresno County has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the state along with the fourth- highest rate of teens with chlamydia and gonorrhea infections. At the same time, rates of HIV and syphilis are increasing. And Fresno Unified students have the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea of all Fresno county school districts, according to the Fresno County Department of Public Health.

UCSF Fresno resident Dr. Albert Chow says sexual education is the best way to reach the most number of teenagers. He says research has shown that comprehensive sex ed can help reduce the rates of STD’s.

“The states that tended to support abstinence tended to have higher rates of STD and pregnancy whereas states that tended to emphasize comprehensive sex ed had lower rates," Chow says.

Community Issue

By law schools are required to teach HIV and AIDS prevention but it’s not mandatory for them to offer sex education classes but that soon may change. A new bill in the legislature would make comprehensive sex education mandatory including information on STDs and contraception.

Fresno Unified’s associate superintendent of curriculum Rosario Sanchez says finances were part of the concern when the district dropped sex ed but it was also classroom time.

“At the time they made a difficult decision. There may have been some budget concerns but it was also to be to open up some other opportunities for our kids," Sanchez says. "By not having that class they can do more requirement classes, they can do AP, they can do electives.”

But Sanchez says after looking at the stark statistics the district is planning to restore comprehensive sex education in high school.

So far, she says the majority of the board is in favor.

Trustee Brooke Ashjian says he supports proper sexual education but he questions whether things like LGBTQ issues should be taught at school. He also says in order for sex education to work, parents must be involved and not just the school.

“We feed the kids breakfast, we fed them lunch, we have marriage and family therapist on staff, we pick them up for school, we take them home, we get them before school, we’re able to keep them after school, and now we’re teaching them about sex ed,"Ashjian says. "So what are the parents doing?”

Urgent To Act

Socorro Santillan with Fresno Barrios Unidos says the district plays an important role.

“And even situations where you do have close knit families, kids are too scared to ask the parents because they’re scared the parents aren’t going to love them no more if they’re sexually active.”

For Antonio Jauregui, the 18 year old who just graduated high school it wasn’t so much that he was scared to ask his parents. He says it’s simply a topic you don’t discuss at home.

“Just in my household questions about sex, birth control or relationships they don’t really come up and they’re not expected too," he says. "And if you do have a question you’re expected to go somewhere else.”

Local health leaders say that’s the reality for many students in the Central Valley and that’s why it’s urgent to act. Fresno Unified officials are expected to discuss restoring sex education at a board meeting in late August. 

[This story was orginially broadcasted by the Valley Public Radio].