The first day of October 2015 was a good day for Chris Pepper. As content specialist for health programs at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), Pepper and his team had been working on a revised health education curriculum for the city’s high school students when news broke that California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 329.
Dubbed the California Healthy Youth Act, the law made comprehensive sexuality education mandatory for all middle school and high school students and “requires school districts to provide instruction on human trafficking.”
While comprehensive sex ed is now the law, the state is not currently patrolling local compliance with the Healthy Youth Act. The ACLU has been proactively promoting the law in the absence of state monitoring.
Pepper started as an SFUSD health teacher in 2002, and while some schools had set curriculums, the city and state lacked subject uniformity.
“The school health program provided some guidance on curriculum, but it ended up that teachers would choose the materials that worked best for their students,” Pepper said.
The district brought some consistency to the process in 2014. The sexuality education curriculum, called Be Real. Be Ready. and built with the assistance of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, was introduced across SFUSD high schools.
With the mandate on human trafficking education, Pepper needed to update Be Real. Be Ready. and develop a middle school curriculum. Pepper partnered with Huckleberry Youth Programs’ intervention services coordinator Carly Devlin to create a program that was separate and appropriate for both age groups.
“We really wanted to provide what human trafficking and exploitation looks like in a lot of different ways, and include a piece on labor trafficking,” Devlin said. “We thought about it in terms of power and control and community health — meeting young people where they’re at and creating space for the complexities of issues.”
By early 2016, teams of teachers, service providers and city officials were gathering to create an updated high school curriculum and develop a new one for middle schools. Lessons were rolled out in late 2016 and spring 2017.
Two lessons were added to Be Real. Be Ready. The first introduced concepts related to labor trafficking, and the second focused on sex trafficking.
“The leap of talking about sex trafficking can be a hard thing to do, which is why we start with labor trafficking and discuss situations familiar to a lot of people, like not being paid a full wage and being threatened by a supervisor,” Pepper said. “Talking about that first helps young people make the connection that sex trafficking is another form of exploitation.”
The middle school adaptation was dubbed Healthy Me. Healthy Us. It is a 13-lesson version with language altered to be age appropriate.
“For middle school students, we talk about situations under the context of consent and boundaries,” Huckleberry’s Devlin said. “We talk about why it is important to have boundaries not just with strangers, but with people you know, because often traffickers are known people in a child’s life.”
Devlin adds that the middle school curriculum was designed to understand the systemic piece that goes into trafficking — discussing who has power and who doesn’t.
“Vulnerability isn’t just at an individual level and students need to hear that,” she said. “There are systems that get youth into vulnerable places like foster care and the like.”
The final lesson in Healthy Me. Healthy Us., which was largely created by SFUSD Health Liaison Coordinator Rosalia Lopez, discusses human trafficking, and starts with the story of an anonymous teenager who was trafficked. It also includes discussion questions for the class afterward.
The high school version spans the last two lessons of the curriculum and goes into more depth for middle school students.
“When we looked at materials available around the topic, we found that most were written as interventions for student groups of people who’d been trafficked themselves, and that isn’t necessarily our audience,” Pepper said. “We have to be aware that some people in the room have experience or some connection and some don’t and we need to be sensitive to those realities.”
Curriculum authors also walked the fine line between scariness versus reality.
“We don’t want to make the world scary for young people,” Pepper said. “We help combat that by helping them understand their rights, how to advocate for themselves, where to go for help and how to understand their self-worth.”
Spreading the Word
The entirety of both middle school and high school programs are available online. Pepper said he has received interest from school districts in other parts of the state.
“Districts are organically reaching out. We’ve worked with Tamalpais Union High School District in the North Bay and I’m heading out later this week to visit the Oxnard [Union High] School District, near Los Angeles, on how to teach the curriculum,” Pepper said. “I think school districts across the state are realizing that the requirements of the California Healthy Youth Act are extensive, and they need to change lessons to meet those requirements and they are looking to us for help.”
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of the story, Pepper stated that he would be visiting the Oxnard School District. Pepper was referring to the Oxnard Union High School District.
Katie Morell is a Bay Area-based, independent journalist with more than 15 years experience covering topics including crime, business, body acceptance, social justice, animal welfare and travel. Her work has appeared in San Francisco Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Hemispheres and others. She writes a monthly column about body acceptance called Body Love for Rebellious Magazine for Women. Read more of her work at www.katiemorell.com.