Education

Bill Pushes for Inclusive, and Consistent, Sex Education in Mass. Schools

The legislation was first introduced in 2011 and has passed multiple times in the state Senate but has not made it to the House floor for a vote

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Sex education advocates are renewing efforts to pass legislation that would set standards for a sexual health curriculum across Massachusetts.

Supporters of the Healthy Youth Act gathered at the state house Tuesday to lobby for the bill that would require public schools that offer sexual health education to use research-informed curriculum that is medically accurate, age appropriate, and LGBTQ+ inclusive. In addition to lessons on sexual development, preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, the curriculum would be required to include information about consent, preventing dating violence including affirmative recognition that people have different sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions, and information about resources that offer support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning students.

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The legislation was first introduced in 2011 and has passed multiple times in the state Senate but has not made it to the House floor for a vote. Healthy Act Coalition Chair Jaclyn Friedman says as Republican-led states move to restrict sex education in schools, supporters are eager to see the bill become law.

“It’s specifically crucial right now because we are seeing skyrocketing attacks on LGBTQ students across the country and including here in Massachusetts and we need to give them all of the protections we can get. We need to hear the state house say we have your back," she said.

“Over the last two years or so we begin to look around our country, start hearing from some our states from the likes of a guy named DeSantis that we are not going to speak in positive terms of the LGBTQ+ community. To me that is outrageous,” said Rep. Jim O’Day, sponsor of the bill. “We here in Massachusetts, the first state in the country that passed the legislation that same-sex couples could get married, we have to get ahead of the curve.”

Seventeen-year-old Lex Ortiz is about to graduate from high school and said she learned more about sexual health from an after-school program than she did in her 13 years in school.

“We didn’t learn about STIs, we didn’t learn about consent, we didn’t learn about healthy relationships or domestic violence which are all very important and most importantly, we didn’t learn about LGBTQ at all and as an LGBTQ person it’s not OK,” said Ortiz.

She joined dozens of volunteers in lobbying lawmakers for support of the Healthy Youth Act Tuesday.

“Seeing my peers grow up scared to ask their parents questions, myself being scared to ask my family questions, it’s not OK and I have three little brothers and I can’t see them go through the same thing that I go through and that my friends have gone through,” said Ortiz.

The bill would not mandate sex education in schools and families could opt out.

“I know that some adults when we talk about sex ed, they squirm, it’s OK to squirm, it’s uncomfortable, said Rep. Vanna Howard. “This is not just sex ed curriculum, this is mental health, civil rights, this is reproductive rights, this is all of that so we are hoping that this bill will reach the floor this session, it’s that important.”

She shared a statistic attributed to data compiled by state surveys on health and risk behaviors of Massachusetts youth: 81% of LGBTQ+ high school students in Massachusetts do not learn about LGBTQ+ sexual health in their school health classes

The bill has received opposition from the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative organization that has stated they believe sex education is best taught by parents.

“Comprehensive sex education isn’t just about sex, which is what scares so many people away,” said Jennifer Hart, vice president of Education, Learning & Engagement for Planned Parenthood League Massachusetts.

“Comprehensive sexual education is about building healthy relationships, communicating with one another, being able to share how folks are feeling and being able to say no or yes to things, to be able to access healthcare and be able to talk to their parents, their caring adults and healthcare providers about what they need.”

Some advocates pointed to the Rights, Respect, and Responsibility (3R’s) curriculum implemented in Worcester Public Schools this past school year as an example of the type of teaching that could be taught under this legislation.

A district spokesperson said 3,771 students or 15% of students opted out of the curriculum.

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