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As conservative activism targets sex ed, new Mass. guidelines are on the horizon

New sex education guidelines coming to Massachusetts
WATCH: Reporter Deanna Pan explains why Massachusetts hasn’t updated its sex education curriculum since 1999 and shares some updates.

When Alex Nugent was a freshman taking sex education at Concord-Carlisle High School, her teacher gave the class an assignment that made Nugent pause: She and her classmates were asked to write a journal entry in which they put themselves “in the shoes of an LGBT youth,” she said, and how they’d feel if they were called derogatory slurs at school.

Nugent, now 17 and a rising senior, joked with her friend, “I’m just gonna say, ‘I put on my shoes and I just go to school and it’s a normal day for me,’ because that’s how things are.”

The assignment was well intentioned, but awkward, said Nugent, who identifies as queer and uses she/they pronouns. And it encapsulated the challenge with sex education in Massachusetts, one of 21 states that do not have a requirement that public schools teach sex ed, leaving curriculum decisions to local school districts.


The result is that many districts rely on “old and cobbled together” curricula, based on standards the state set almost 25 years ago, said Megara Bell, director of Partners in Sex Education, which helps schools devise comprehensive sex education programs.

“Schools are either using old frameworks, which are horribly outdated, or they’re using no frameworks, which is chaotic, or they are most likely just not wanting to update their programing — just leaving it as,” Bell said.

Now, after five years of working on new standards, the state is bringing some clarity on sex ed to the classroom.

In late June, Governor Maura Healey introduced new guidelines for the sex education curriculum, the first update to the standards since 1999. The proposed framework comes at a time of resurgent conservative activism in schools over issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

Intended for public school students in grades pre-K through 12, the framework was designed to be “LGBTQ+ inclusive, medically accurate and developmentally- and age-appropriate,” according to Healey’s office. The guidelines, developed by a review panel of experts, are broken into four grade spans (pre–K to second grade, grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12) and emphasize skills and strategies for maintaining physical, mental and emotional health, It also includes information on healthy relationships, sexual orientation, and sexual health, with updates reflecting 21st century technology.


The guidelines, for example, propose instructing students in the lowest grades about the harmful effects of bullying and gender stereotypes. In grades 3-5, the proposal recommends teaching students about gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations. Starting in grade 6, lessons on sexually transmitted infections, abstinence and contraception are recommended.

If the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approves the guidelines, which could come as early as this September, local school districts can still decide whether and how to implement them, including what curriculum and materials they will use.

“Sex education’s always going to be a lightning rod for controversy,” said Alison Macklin, policy and advocacy director at SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change. “The thing that’s different today is that Americans overwhelmingly — and more than they ever have historically — support LGBTQIA+ Americans; Americans support diversity. Americans are aware of race issues in a different way than they have been historically. And in a lot of ways, a lot of wins have been coming for historically marginalized individuals.”

The standards align closely with the Healthy Youth Act, a bill that has been lingering in the Massachusetts House of Representatives since 2011. That bill would require schools that choose to teach sex ed to use a curriculum that’s medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive, and LGBTQ-inclusive.


Neither the proposed curriculum framework nor the Healthy Youth Act would make sex ed mandatory. Moreover, under state law, parents have the right to opt their children out of sex ed.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the proposed framework is still “likely to become a political issue” in some parts of the state. As conservative activists fan the flames of the culture wars at public schools — attacking not only sex education, but diversity and inclusion efforts, and books they deem inappropriate for children — these guidelines may provide cover to districts hoping to implement comprehensive sex education, he said.

“I do believe that the state is now taking some of the pressure off some of our local communities who might have found themselves being challenged by people who, for political reasons, would want to make this another issue to divide us,” Koocher said. “This curriculum is very reasonable. It’s relevant.”

Opponents of the new curriculum framework have already raised objections, including at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting in June.

Katie Ferreira-Aubin, a member of the Dighton-Rehoboth School Committee, told the state board that these are “adult topics.”

“Why is promoting a curriculum about gender, sex, and sexuality to children under the age of 16 a necessary thing?” she said. “Please stop sexualizing our children. Let them be children.”


The conservative Massachusetts Family Institute has marshaled the charge against comprehensive sex education in recent years.

The organization was instrumental in a 2022 campaign against a sex ed curriculum in Worcester. After the city’s School Committee adopted the “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” curriculum, known as the 3Rs curriculum, 15.5 percent of students opted out this past school year — almost 4,000 children — up from 14.1 percent in 2022, the Telegram & Gazette reported.

By contrast, according to a statewide DESE survey of about 340 principals, 75 percent said that fewer than 1 percent of their students were removed from a required health class by a parent.

“Our institute’s position has always been that we believe that sex education is best taught in the home with parents,” said Mary Ellen Siegler, director of communications, research, and operations at the Massachusetts Family Institute. “But if school districts are going to choose to teach sex ed, then we would recommend more of another approach to sex ed, which is called sexual risk avoidance education.”

Sexual risk avoidance curriculum emphasizes that “sexual delay” is only sure-fire way to completely avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexual transmitted infections, said Siegler.

But according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank, “sexual risk avoidance” programs are a rebranding of the federal abstinence-only programs that were in vogue in the 1990s and early 2000s, and are ineffective and unethical. The first federally funded research on these programs in 2007 found no evidence of “statistically significant impacts” on rates of sexual abstinence. Other evidence has shown these programs increase the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among young people once they become sexually active.


“We have over 30 years of research that shows us what is helpful to young people and to individuals to lead healthy lives, and then we absolutely also know what is hurtful and provides more shame and stigma,” Macklin said.

The curriculum framework released by the state, she added, on the other hand, sticks to “research-based information” and “helps to make sure that ideology stays out of the classroom, focusing not only on reproductive anatomy and pregnancy prevention, but interpersonal skills, such as negotiating consent.

“We have got to provide [students] some guardrails and opportunities for critical thinking,” Macklin said. “And that’s what comprehensive sex education does.”

The public can weigh in on the proposed guidelines until Aug. 28, at which point the education department will review the feedback before bringing the draft back to the board for an official vote.

Nugent, of Concord-Carlisle High School, said she was grateful to learn about birth control in sex education, but wished her class had more thoroughly covered issues of consent, navigating healthy intimate relationships, LGBTQ and intersex people, and even the “mechanics of actual sex.”

“If students aren’t learning through schools, through a qualified teacher based on research and scientific educational information, they’ll be [learning about sex] from some sketchy website online or from a YouTube video that hasn’t been fact checked, or a porn site,” Nugent said. “Kids are going to learn this one way or the other, and so I feel like it’s important for schools to try to be the ones to impart that education.”

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Deanna Pan can be reached at Follow her @DDpan.