Napa Valley Sisters and Sex Education
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“Napa Valley Sisters and Sex Education,” Ensign, Apr. 1979, 28

Napa Valley Sisters and Sex Education

Intelligent, well-informed involvement by Latter-day Saints and others coolly handled a hot issue.

Joyce Bradford, wife of Napa, California, First Ward’s busy bishop, and mother of six small children, read the newspaper article a second time. Then, more slowly, a third time. Leaving the newspaper on the kitchen table, she went slowly to the telephone. A community problem was developing that demanded immediate attention. For Sister Bradford, the time had come to get involved.

The newspaper article told of a proposal by the Napa County Health Department to present a comprehensive health program—including sex education units—throughout Napa schools, beginning in kindergarten. Parents in the Church were already concerned about school presentations on birth control that the Health Department had given in each of the community’s three junior high schools. The coeducational assemblies had tried to convey birth-control information in a relaxed, light-hearted way, but Latter-day Saint students had been keenly offended by jokes about matters of sacred importance. Concerned that this approach would now be taken in elementary grades as well, Sister Bradford felt that in good conscience, she could not remain silent.

She was not alone in her concern. It was not difficult to find members and nonmember parents with similar feelings. Soon a group of parents met to decide how best to convey their point of view to the school board. Jane Ann Olsen, a Mormon mother of six and a skilled public speaker, was chosen to represent the group. The school board was caught offguard at the strength of this presentation. Previously unaware that their approach to sex education had serious opposition within the community, trustees were unsure how to proceed.

For the first time in memory, school board meetings were front-page news. Letters to the editor, pro and con, filled the nightly paper. Many who had not previously thought much about the issue discovered that they did care about the sex education their children received in school. Controversy raged. Sister Olsen spent hours on the telephone with supporters and opponents, getting daily encouragement and discouragement, praise and blame.

“The role of spokesman in a controversy is a difficult one,” she reports. “Too often we keep silent because we are simply unwilling to face disapproval. But when I spoke out against sex education in our schools, I was surprised that many who are unhappy with the standards of the world were eagerly waiting to support someone with a clear vision of how things could be improved.

“As Latter-day Saints, we have an obligation to our communities, if only because we are blessed with a prophet’s guidance. President Kimball’s teachings leave no doubt about which ideas need to be resisted, and which supported. Those who feel unsure are grateful to hear a clear voice. We have made many friends because of these things—often in unexpected areas.”

After three meetings and numerous interviews with school officials, the school board decided that the matter required more serious consideration. The board appointed a committee to review the health education program and to formulate an alternative that would meet the needs of the entire community. The Church members were invited to submit names of representatives to serve on this committee. Three Latter-day Saint mothers were among those appointed. One of them was Joyce Bradford.

“We spent the first summer reading school health programs from all over the state, as a basis for comparison,” Sister Bradford says. “We were not pleased with much that we saw. The program we submitted to the board required a great deal more innovation than we had expected.

“The Latter-day Saint members of the committee were particularly concerned with three goals. We wanted family life to be presented in a positive light, with proper emphasis on the miracle of life, family joys, and cooperation. We wanted discussion of human reproduction eliminated from the health program until after fifth grade. And we wanted parents to have the option to include or exclude their children in classes on sex education.

“In the program we arrived at, parents can have their youth excused from such classes, check out the materials and present them at home, or attend night classes at the school together with their youth. Birth control is not presented until eleventh grade, and homosexuality and other forms of deviant behavior are merely defined, not justified or presented as ‘alternate life styles.’ We feel this program will represent a definite improvement in the sex education program of this community.”

She has been pleased with community response. “There were some who thought we were trying to impose our religious convictions on the community and that we would not be capable of compromise. When they discovered that we were not trying to force our philosophy on others, but were sincerely trying to cooperate for the protection of everyone’s parental rights—including those with views far different from ours—their attitude toward us relaxed. But more important than that, we were able to relax toward them. I found many committee members to be fine people, and I was gratified to learn that they were really seeking the best interests of the young people in Napa.”

The religiously oriented parents who approached the school board continued to work together in providing research and other input to those working on the health education committee. When the parents had difficulty securing a copy of the California State Health Code, they traveled to Sacramento, the state capital, to get a copy. While there, they learned that the state school board was meeting in Anaheim, California, five days later to review sex education throughout the state.

Harvey Greer, regional representative, had been impressed with Church members’ work on the Napa sex-education proposal. After consulting with the stake presidency, he arranged for a representative to address the entire state school board for the five minutes.

Jane Ann Olsen was chosen to speak at the Anaheim meeting. Another parent, Mollie Sorensen, accompanied her.

The five-minute talk was given. The two women remained for the committee sessions, talking with committee members and expressing their concerns. A committee selected to review the sex education materials for the state made several recommendations agreeable to the two women.

The committee defined birth control as a decision for a husband and wife. Human reproduction was eliminated from the elementary program, and discussion of contraceptives was taken out of the junior high school programs.

“I have really learned that one person can make a substantial difference,” says Sister Olsen. “But I have learned other things, too. An emotional approach to controversial issues undermines your credibility. If you intend to get involved in deeply felt issues, do your homework, and try to research materials that express all sides of the issue.” Be seriously informed.

“It is also important to take a positive approach. People don’t need to hear what they’re doing wrong as much as how to make things better. Our challenge as Latter-day Saints is not to condemn, but to be a light to others and demonstrate a better way.”

Today other Church members in the Napa area are following this example. Latter-day Saints are among those donating blood, attending school board meetings, serving on symphony and library committees, doing volunteer work in schools, learning cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and other lifesaving techniques, collecting for Heart Fund and Cancer Society drives, providing emergency foster care for children, organizing committees to upgrade television broadcasting, and answering “hotline” calls.

Joyce Walton, who works with unmarried mothers, sums up the frustrations and satisfactions of such work: “It is disheartening to see these things, but to live with sadness all around you and do nothing is worse. I am glad to have found a way to share the blessing of knowledge that Heavenly Father has given Latter-day Saints. And the gnawing feeling I have always had that there was more I should be doing is finally gone.”

Truly, these women are following the Lord’s admonition to “do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:27)—and President Kimball’s counsel that members of the Church make positive contributions in their community and civic affairs.

  • Sharon Elwell, homemaker and mother of three, serves as president of the Napa Third Ward Primary, Napa California Stake.

Photography by Herbie Greene