For years, too many grown-ups on Beacon Hill have heard the words “sex education” and headed for the exits as if it were a fire drill. The Puritans who once landed on these shores may be long gone, but political squeamishness over the “s-word” lingers on.
So for the past decade, some state lawmakers have struggled — thus far unsuccessfully — to make comprehensive sex education more readily available to school districts throughout the state. It’s been a decade that included the #MeToo era, a virtual epidemic of school bullying accusations, and rising HIV rates among a new generation. Still, there were few statewide guidelines on what school systems should be teaching and how.
The good news is that each year that now long-delayed legislation got better and more inclusive.
This week, the Massachusetts Senate will make one more try as members consider a bill that would not mandate the teaching of sex education, mind you, but would require those schools that do choose to approach the subject to provide a curriculum that is both medically accurate and age-appropriate. It must include — but not be limited to — information on anatomy, reproduction, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, and “relationship and communication skills” that can lead to “healthy decisions about relationships and sexuality.”
It must also include age-appropriate information on gender identity and sexual orientation and provide support services that take into consideration the needs of LGBTQ students. The bill also provides specific instructions for informing parents about a particular curriculum when adopted and on allowing parents to opt out on behalf of their children (that’s actually already written into state law).
The state Department of Education does have on its books a “Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework,” last issued in 1999. It was in the process of being redrafted when COVID-19 hit. The current Senate bill would require the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to review and update the framework every 10 years.
There are, no doubt, in this state, school systems that have adopted comprehensive K-12 curriculums and have labored to keep them up to date and affirming of the student populations they deal with — even as they have dealt with the challenges of COVID and remote learning. The Boston Public Schools won praise from Siecus, a sex education advocacy organization, for using the “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” curriculum. But the group also noted a “glaring disparity regarding the quality of sex education that students receive” in the state, adding that some 70 percent of school districts use the far less comprehensive “abstinence-plus” instructional materials.
And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify 20 essential sexual health education topics, only 27.6 percent of Massachusetts schools taught all 20 topics in grades 6, 7, and 8, according to Siecus. Some 61.6 percent taught all 20 topics in grades 9 through 12.
The bill that will come before the Senate Thursday won’t fix all of that. It is no one-size-fits-all remedy.
But it will make it more likely that sex education can be fixed. It will give school leaders and parents who think their children deserve the best and most up-to-date information — yes, even about sex — solid guidelines from which to work.
This time around, the bill, first introduced in 2011, has at least 93 cosponsors. Last year, a similar measure passed the Senate with an impressive 33-2 vote. That was two months before the state COVID lockdown, although the House speaker at the time was noncommittal on the bill’s future. Today there’s a new speaker in charge and a good deal of support for the bill among House members.
That young people today have ready access to the Internet and social media’s cesspool of content on sex makes it more urgent that schools provide trusted, accurate information on sexual health and on healthy relationships. This long-overdue legislation makes that far more likely.
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