In the spring of 1973, I was a fifth-grader at the then quite new Sierra Elementary School. Part of the science curriculum was something called Growing and Changing. Our teachers sat us down with diagrams of the human reproductive system and explained the basic functions of the most basic parts. They explained that when a penis was inserted into a vagina, an egg could be fertilized and a baby could be born. Then the girls stayed in the classroom to watch a movie called The Story of Menstruation while the boys went to the gym and talked about something else. Looking back, I think we girls assumed it was something non-sex related. Boys didn’t have periods. What else could happen? They didn’t volunteer any information.
We did not discuss sexual abuse. No one wanted to shatter our innocence at such a young age. My next-door neighbor's dad did that. That same year, when he touched me in a way I found utterly shocking, I blurted it to my parents. They told other parents, who talked to their children, and the dam burst. It turned out every single little girl in the neighborhood had a story to tell. Every. Single. One. They just didn’t tell earlier because this man told us all not to, and we were pretty confused. We girls were no longer allowed to play at this boy’s house, but nothing further was discussed or done, despite the fact that the father had three little girls of his own. It was literally unspeakable.
In eighth grade, at East Arvada Jr. High, my mother signed all the paperwork for me to take a class rather obscurely called “Bionomics.” Later it was rebranded as “Health Education.” Really, it was sex ed. It went into greater detail, covering topics like “venereal disease” or “VD” (STI’s) and contraception. I do not recommend a slideshow of advanced syphilis infections right before lunch. At Pomona, in tenth grade, we covered human reproduction in biology. For kids whose parents had given permission for Bionomics, it was just review. More slides. Ew.
We still didn’t discuss sexual abuse, and I had learned my lesson. Unspeakable. Therefore, confused, gaslit, and deeply ashamed, I stayed silent while a man in his 40’s abused me between the ages of 12 and 15.
We did not discuss sexual orientation. If you were a kid in Jeffco the 1970’s, there were no gay people. There was a sweetly gentle boy who got teased a lot, called “faggot.” He sat behind me in high school and died by suicide. I will never forget that empty chair. Anyway, by our ten-year reunion it turned out there had been gay kids in our school after all. Who knew?
Fast forward to the aughts. My own children had the Growing and Changing unit in 5th grade. Like my parents before me, I’d already had “the talk” with my daughter, my husband with our son. The biggest difference in the unit was that children were no longer separated by sex, so boys learned that girls had periods and girls learned that boys had wet dreams. In seventh grade, they had a very in-depth class at our church that included sexual orientation and gender identity, which Growing and Changing had not. They had grown up around opposite-sex and same-sex couples as well as trans folk, so nothing new there. The tenth grade biology unit was very superficial in comparison.
They had been taught over and over, from preschool on, that adults should not touch where your bathing suit covers. That if an adult did, it was not the child’s fault; it was the adult’s fault. They were taught to tell another adult whom they trusted, and they got to pick whom they were comfortable telling. My kids knew my history, so I’m pretty sure they would have told me, but I think their own sense of autonomy protected them. Knowing about the possibility of sexual abuse did not shatter their innocence. It protected it.
Recently, there have been more changes to the unit, and I have heard concerns about them expressed by parents. As a board member, I felt the responsibility to review them. I get it. I do. As parents, we feel more comfortable believing we are in control of everything our kids will hear about or be exposed to. In Jeffco, parents can and do opt their kids out of parts of Growing and Changing (or out of the unit entirely), so they do have some control, but in our information-rich world, this control has limits. With my own children, I saw that simply knowing that there are different kinds of people and partnerships did them no harm. I do not see the more recently added objective definitions of sexual orientation and gender identities as inappropriate. Of course, parents who disagree can opt out.
Jeffco teachers are not forced to teach that any orientation or identity is good or bad. In fact, they are expressly trained not to make value judgments one way or the other and to direct students to their families to get answers to those questions. It means that, in this curriculum, no kids are erased, and perhaps it even demonstrates that there is no need to tease or bully. As a board member responsible for making sure that “Jeffco Public Schools cultivates an environment of safety, belonging, respect, inclusivity, and encouragement,” this is important to me. I will always remember that empty seat in my high school DECA class.
Finally, though I stand by any parent’s right to opt their child out of sensitive curriculum, I cannot stress enough the importance of protecting our children from abuse. Keep in mind that, when we tell children to talk to a “trusted adult,” it’s because sometimes the abuse or threat of abuse is happening at home. We do not serve our kids by pretending otherwise.