BOSTON (SHNS) – Now that schools have largely emptied out for another year, families, educators and students will have the chance to give their opinions on a new sex education framework over the course of the summer.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to open a public comment period on a draft of new sex and health education guidelines, that are intended to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ children and teach students about bodily autonomy, mental and emotional health, personal safety, dating safety, violence prevention, physical health and hygiene, nutrition, substance use disorder, sexually transmitted infections, and consent, among other things.
The last time the guidelines were updated was 1999.
“I think what you’ll see in the framework reflects the shifts in the field of health and wellness and physical education in these last 25 years. Acknowledges the importance of these disciplines in a well rounded education, in supporting our students to be healthy and well,” Rachelle Engler Bennett, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education associate commissioner of student and family support said to the board on Tuesday.
The draft standards include different guidelines for four age groups — pre-K through second grade, grades 3-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12 each have their own frameworks.
Members of the public came to the board meeting on Tuesday to offer their opinion on moving the standards forward for public comment, with the intention of voting on whether to adopt the guidelines in late summer or early fall. Commenters were deeply divided, with some saying that the new frameworks were essential to student safety and a modern education, and others who said the standards are dangerous and sexualize children.
“As a queer kid who grew up so deeply in the closet in a place where it was not safe even to come out to myself, that imagining a place where every child had the kind of education provided for in this framework, it would have opened up the possibilities of my life in ways that are equal parts exhilarating and heartbreaking to think about,” said Jaclyn Friedman, founder of sex ed nonprofit EducateUS.
She added, “We can’t keep saying that Massachusetts is an innovative leader in this country if we leave our young people to learn critical health and sexuality lessons from extremists or TikTok influencers.”
Friedman was joined by advocates from Planned Parenthood and Partners in Sex Education in saying that the “medically accurate, age-appropriate” health and sex ed outlined in the frameworks is “essential.”
But not everyone who spoke was in agreement.
“In this curriculum I couldn’t help but notice sex, sexuality and gender was more a teaching narrative than nutrition and physical education and mental health. More sex and sexuality. Why do we need to talk about children’s sexual preferences?” said Katie Ferreira-Aubin, a member of the Dighton-Rehoboth School Committee, who said she was not representing the committee. “Why are we talking to 7- to 10-year-olds about their sexual preferences? This is adult topics.”
The frameworks are not curriculum. The department and board set the standards, and districts use the state guidelines to create their own curriculum, board Chair Katherine Craven later clarified.
Ferreira-Aubin went on to say that the members of the board who voted to open comment on the standards “are the definition of a groomer.”
Michael King, of the Massachusetts Family Institute, argued that the framework “is neither age appropriate nor medically accurate.”
“This framework also has a heavy emphasis on gender ideology, even in the youngest grades,” King said. “If this framework is passed and implemented, it will only increase the growing opt-out of sex ed movement across the state, not just in Worcester, and the mass exodus of families from Massachusetts public schools.”
DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley recommended that the board vote to move forward with the public comment period, and some board members made statements of support.
Gov. Maura Healey held a press conference last week about her push to advance the measure. Riley and Craven were in attendance.