The “healthy youth” bill that we just passed in the Senate requires that if a public school offers sex education, the curriculum should be age-appropriate, medically-accurate and comprehensive.
Sex education does not make students more likely to engage in sex too early or engage in other risky behaviors. On the contrary, students who have a full understanding of the possible consequences of sex, including pregnancy and venereal disease, are more likely to make healthy decisions.
Out of respect for local control of education, the bill does not require a school district to offer sex education.
Nor does it reduce the control of parents over the education of their children in districts that do choose to offer sex education. Under existing law, schools are required to notify parents that they are planning to teach sex education. Schools must allow parents to withdraw their children from any or all portions of a sex education program. The new law preserves these rights for parents and, in fact, strengthens them by clarifying the notification policies and assuring access to course materials for inspection by parents.
But, the bill does specify that if a school district teaches sex education, the sex education curriculum must include the following required topics:
The bill explicitly contemplates that the curriculum should teach “the benefits of abstinence and delaying sexual activity.” This language strikes a balance between those who might advocate that abstinence be the exclusive message in sex education and those who feel it is important to recognize that some students may make the choice to engage in sex. If students are going to engage in sex, they should do so with full understanding of human reproduction and the risks of unprotected sex.
Sometimes young people fail to use contraception because they are uncomfortable in bringing it up. The bill also requires the curriculum to include skill development, helping students to learn how to “effectively discuss safe sexual activity.”
The bill also speaks to the issue of consent and coercion in relationships, requiring skill development to “form healthy, respectful relationships.” Hopefully, this will help to reduce dating violence.
Finally, the bill requires that sex education include “age-appropriate information about gender identity and sexual orientation for all students.” The hope is that this element of the curriculum will make the program fully relevant to all students, including LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students should not feel left out of health education. Including them will support them emotionally, help them reduce risky behaviors and may give other students insights that will reduce bullying.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) prepares curriculum frameworks for teaching in Massachusetts schools. These are intended to guide teachers in developing their lessons.
Generally, these frameworks are developed by DESE without detailed guidance from the legislature. In this case, the legislature is providing an outline for the content of the curriculum because of the political sensitivity of the issue and to support DESE in releasing a more comprehensive curriculum.
While the issues raised by sex education are always delicate, the bill was adopted by a bipartisan vote of 33-2 in the senate. My hope is that the bill that the senate has passed will be accepted by the House and by the Governor and that DESE will move forward and promulgate a sex education curriculum framework that will help students make better decisions in those school districts that choose to adopt it.