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Awaiting state action, Newton schools implement their own sex ed programs

Patricia Rivero Gonzalez, wellness department head at Newton South High School, and health teacher Patrick Jordan Quern. (Camila Beiner for The Boston Globe)
Patricia Rivero Gonzalez, wellness department head at Newton South High School, and health teacher Patrick Jordan Quern. (Camila Beiner for The Boston Globe)Camila Beiner for The Boston Globe

As the Massachusetts House considers a bill to regulate sex education programs, schools in Newton have been implementing their own curriculum, which school officials say is inclusive of LGBTQ students of various ages and gender identities.

The Massachusetts Senate passed the latest version of the bill, known as The Healthy Youth Act, on a 33-2 vote in January. The legislation would ensure public schools that choose to offer a sex education program — there is no law requiring it — be medically accurate, age appropriate, and LGBTQ inclusive.

Megara Bell, director of Partners in Sex Education, a Newton-based organization teaching sex education, said since the state has no specific legislation requiring public schools to offer it, the curriculum is “extremely” inconsistent across school districts.

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“Some schools are getting excellent, top-notch sexual health education, other schools are getting nothing, and then some schools are getting miseducated which is more harmful than good,” Bell said.

Bell said it is LGBTQ students who are more vulnerable to developing negative health outcomes such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Robert Parlin, advisor of Gender and Sexuality Awareness at Newton South High School, said five years ago their students wanted to update the ninth grade sex education curriculum given changing times.

“Students particularly wanted teachers to employ current terminology and to weave LGBTQ issues into the lessons more, rather than treating them as separate lessons,” Parlin said.

Parlin said the students came up with a list of suggestions and brought them to the Health and Wellness Department three years ago.

In a recent meeting with the student club, he said, they discussed the current curriculum and the conversation was “tremendously different from five years ago.''

“The students were very supportive of how issues of gender and sexuality were dealt with, saying that they were happily surprised about the content, that is even included topics such as asexuality and nonbinary gender identities,” Parlin said.

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Patricia Rivero Gonzalez, wellness department head at Newton South High School, said the main problem with the former curriculum was the sexual identity lesson. If they revamped that lesson, she said, the entire curriculum needed to be updated.

“The concern of the students was the language, specifically when talking about identity, and the students told us that was the only time in the curriculum when they felt they were part of the class,” Gonzalez said.

Using the student feedback, she said, the department started to use gender neutral terms in different aspects of the curriculum including role-play activities and examples.

Newton South’s Wellness Department tries to maintain a close relationship with the student club and continues to hear any concerns or modifications needed to include everyone, Gonzalez said.

Patrick Jordan Quern, a health teacher at Newton South High School, said the curriculum for Newton Public Schools is one semester freshman year and meets twice a week, incorporating 18 different lessons about overall health.

“The teachers here at Newton South and at Newton North have an open door policy so just because we talked about it does not mean it is the end,” Quern said. “If you have an issue within the four years — and beyond — then we are always here to talk and help.”

Health teachers go through training where they talk to professionals about sexual education, Quern said, and they have to receive a state licence for Health/Family and Consumer Science.

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Jasmin Rotem, a student who graduated from Newton South High School in 2019, said as a former Gender and Sexuality Awareness club president she spoke with the department three years ago after many freshmen complained about teachers making insensitive comments and uncomfortable material in the health curriculum.

“Three students made initial edits to the curriculum and sent them to the department head then a group of students including me went to have an in-person conversation with the whole department,” Rotem said.

She said the department chair was “super receptive” to the suggestions and helped them get a conversation started about changing the curriculum.

When she went through the former curriculum, she said, only one unit in the semester focused on LGBTQ topics.

Rotem said she was also part of an OUT MetroWest program, a nonprofit organization that has a program in Newton focusing on LGBTQ youth and “allied middle school youth,” where she learned about the Healthy Youth Act, proposed legislation to make sex education medically accurate, age-appropriate and LGBTQ inclusive.

She said the program was beneficial because it was “pretty comprehensive and included exactly what students have been asking schools to change.”

Julie Blazar, director of communications at OUT MetroWest, said their programs offer additional sex education to what students receive in schools.

“We have more latitude and freedom to give kids exactly what they need to make these choices for themselves whether they're engaging in sexual activity or not,” Blazar said.

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Blazar said inclusive sex education in schools is important because there are better outcomes when communities value diversity and inclusion.

“Diversity is a strength and LGBTQ community is just one part of that,” Blazar said. “Schools need to step up and make sure that all kids understand whoever they are is valued.”

Mark Springer, associate head of school for Program & Instruction for Solomon Schechter Day School, said the school expanded its health education program during the last school year to expand from a traditional puberty unit taught in the fifth grade.

“The vast majority of parents were extremely supportive and appreciative that we finally had a wellness program in the upper school,” Springer said.

He said the upper school teaches the Get Real program, a sex education curriculum from Planned Parenthood designed for middle-school aged students. The curriculum spans three years, with nine lessons per year for six, seventh, and eighth grades.

“The vast majority of parents were extremely supportive and appreciative that we finally had a wellness program in the upper school,” Springer said.

Camila Beiner and Andrea Rios can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.