Sex ed advocates take efforts into second decade

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Students in public school districts would receive medically accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education regardless of gender, race, disability status, or sexual orientation, under a refiled bill that education advocates are once again hoping the Legislature will take up, and pass this time.

The policies (HD 3454 / SD 2178) are outlined in legislation dubbed the Healthy Youth Act, filed by Reps. James O’Day and Vanna Howard in the House and Sen. Sal DiDomenico in the Senate. Supporters of the bills say statewide standards for comprehensive sexual education are critical to protecting students from violence and sexually transmitted infections.

“I can’t stress this enough – we need to empower youth with the education and resources to help them build healthy relationships,” Howard said during a briefing hosted by the Healthy Youth Act Coalition. “They need to learn what a healthy relationship is and is not so they can avoid sexually transmitted disease, infections, and instances of violence and mistreatment.”

The coalition includes organizations like the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Fenway Health, Jane Doe Inc., NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, Partners in Sex Education, National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts, and Planned Parenthood.

Massachusetts is among a handful of states that does not require sexual health education to be medically accurate, age appropriate, or inclusive, Director of Partners in Sex Education Megara Bell said. Those states include Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Alaska.

“While I love all those states – no shade on those states – I do think that Massachusetts is past time to do something better, and to have some legislation to support a comprehensive sex ed,” Bell said during the briefing, adding that legislators have the “opportunity to support this legislation to ensure that education about sexual health is standards-based, inclusive, age-appropriate, medically accurate, teaches consent, healthy relationships, and media literacy.”

School districts would need to cover a wide-range of topics in sexual health classes, according to the bill, including sexual development, benefits of abstinence or delaying sexual activity, prevention of sexually trasmitted infections, forming healthy relationships, skills to recognize and prevent dating violence, and age-appropriate information about gender identity and sexual orientation.

That curriculum would have to be age-appropriate and medically accurate, which the legislation defines as supported by peer-reviewed research conducted in compliance with accepted scientific methods and topics suitable for children based on developing cognitive, emotional, and behavarial capacity typical for an age group, according to the bills.

Bell said school districts typically categorize age appropriate information into three grade bands: third through fifth grade, sixth through eighth, and ninth through tenth.

In the third through fifth grade band, students typically learn about healthy friendships, puberty, hygiene, boundaries, and respecting others. At the other end of the spectrum, ninth through tenth graders typically learn about sexual consent, contraception, dating violence, gender orientation, and media literacy, according to Bell.

Bell said many of the topics that are taught in one specific band “clearly go across all grade groups.”

“The same topics go across grade bands but with older students, they have more cognitive ability to understand them at a greater depth,” Bell said. “Age-appropriate is really important and that’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand about sex education, is they think of it as one narrow thing and not realize that it is many topics but it’s many topics sort of across these grade bands done in age appropriate ways.”

Municipalities or schools districts would also submit annual reports with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that includes names and descriptions of any sexual health education curricula offered, approximate number of hours spent on the education, number of students enrolled in the classes, and number of students who withdrew from sexual health education classes.

Lawmakers have filed versions of the Healthy Youth Act for the past ten years and the Senate passed the legislation in 2017 and January 2020. O’Day, House chair of the Steering, Policy, and Scheduling Committee, said it “pains” him each time he hears someone talk about that 10-year span.

“It really does,” he said. “It’s a little embarrassing because any measure of a decent politician or legislator is you kind of measure them on the pieces of legislation that they’ve managed to get passed. Now, it’s not like I haven’t had some bills passed. I’m certainly happy and proud of those but this is one that I really feel that is incredibly important.”

The House looks a bit different this year with a new speaker and leadership team after former Speaker Robert DeLeo spent 12 years at the helm of the chamber. Over his first three months, Speaker Ronald Mariano, a former teacher, has not been shy about choosing priorities and then advancing bills in those areas through the House.

While House leadership has not indicated any plans for the Healthy Youth Act, O’Day said he is hopeful that this year “we can finally get to a place where both chambers are in agreement that this is really an important piece of legislation.”

“I know that the House co-sponsor is on here today, Rep. Howard, really happy to have a new, fresh legislator here with new ideas and new energies,” he said. “I’m hoping that maybe she’ll make the difference in getting this bill across the finish line.”

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