Fresno Unified School District board President Brooke Ashjian knows the power of words. He’s in his third year as a trustee and he has been the board’s most visible member since being elected. He is accustomed to being interviewed by newspaper, television and radio reporters.
Thus he should not have been surprised that his controversial statements about sex education, along with his religious proselytizing, would generate a much bigger reaction than his declaration that he supports Fresno Unified’s efforts to implement California’s new public school sex education law.
When asked by Bee education reporter Mackenzie Mays about the California Healthy Youth Act – a state law that mandates comprehensive sex education, including lessons on abortion and LGBT relationships – Ashjian answered like a politician trying to have it both ways.
Ashjian told Mays he backs the district’s plan to uphold the law, but he also threw red meat to conservatives and religious groups that argue sex education should be taught at home, not in a public school.
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“(Y)ou have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way,” he said.
Ashjian also said, “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”
Teaching youth and young adults about sex is no different than giving instruction in math, science or others subjects. If public schools were to follow Ashjian’s misguided notion that instructing students about the realities of sex might cause them to change their sexual orientation, those schools would no longer teach chemistry because that alone might convince a student to become a bomb-making terrorist.
Moreover, Ashjian’s remarks were insulting to the valued members of our community who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. They are also offensive to people who are not of Judeo-Christian faith.
Under our nation’s Constitution, Ashjian is free to express his views. But as the board president of California’s fourth-largest school district, he should not be upset or surprised by the negative reaction from some in the community to his statements.
Nor should he be surprised that Fresno Unified reacted to his statements Monday by affirming its commitment to “tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness.”
Said interim Superintendent Bob Nelson in a news release: “Fresno Unified firmly believes that students and staff perform best in an environment where tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness are practiced and valued. Fresno Unified will continue to provide our students age appropriate sex education in accordance with the Healthy Youth Act and our board policies while honoring parental waivers.”
Finally, by injecting his personal views into the discussion, Ashjian drew attention from Fresno Unified’s need to strengthen its sex education program and become a full-fledged partner in the effort to reduce teen pregnancies in the Valley.
Research shows that comprehensive sex education means fewer teen pregnancies, but the Valley – which has a history of push-back against such lessons – is home to six of the 10 California counties with the highest rates.
When the school board meets Wednesday night, Ashjian likely will hear from critics and supporters alike. We hope that he doesn’t continue to portray himself as a victim – as he has done on his social media accounts and while seeking cover from his conservative talk-show pals.
Ashjian alone is responsible for his remarks. He needs to apologize to those he has offended and reiterate his support for the district’s implementation of the Healthy Youth Act.