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Mass. approves new health and sex ed guidelines for the first time since 1999

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.

State education officials on Tuesday unanimously approved revised sex ed curriculum guidelines for the first time since 1999, incorporating more inclusive language and updating recommendations to schools for K-12 instruction in physical, mental, emotional, and sexual health.

The new framework emphasizes skills like healthy decision-making and problem solving, social awareness, media literacy, and communication and relationship skills, as well as topics like the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and sexual health.

Elected officials and members of the public expressed emphatic support for the updated guidelines during the public comment period in Tuesday’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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“This framework strives to ensure that all students in Massachusetts are empowered with information about themselves, in addition to maintaining respect and kindness to all people in their communities,” said state Representative Jim O’Day, a Democrat from Worcester.

Over the past 10 years, he said, thousands of students have testified at the State House about their desire for comprehensive sex ed curriculum, “so that they can be empowered, so that they can learn about themselves, so that they can learn about how to take care of their own bodies, so they can understand what a healthy relationship is.”

The new framework has been under discussion amid controversy here and across the country about how schools should discuss race, gender, and sexuality. Some conservative groups, including the Massachusetts Family Institute, have been advocating against the new policy, arguing that topics related to gender identity and sexuality are inappropriate for the classroom and violate some families’ religious beliefs.

It’s up to local school districts to consider whether and how to adopt any changes to their sex education curricula, as well as what materials to use. Parents will still have the ability to opt their students out from participating.

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Governor Maura Healey unveiled the new guidelines in June, nearly five years after the state announced plans to update them, which her office said were developed to be “LGBTQ+ inclusive, medically accurate and developmentally- and age-appropriate.”

The state solicited public comments on the material over the summer and incorporated some of the feedback into the version the board approved, adding more inclusive language, separating standards related to sexual health from those related to gender identity, and additional instruction on menstruation.

The new recommendations are broken up into four grade span categories – pre-K to second grade, grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. The instruction for pre-K to second grade students, for example, focuses on topics including proper nutrition, self-control skills, the harm of bullying, and the importance of personal boundaries. In grades 3-5, the guidelines recommend introducing how gender identity and presentation can differ from gender at birth, and by grades 6-8, teaching students about reproductive health.

The guidelines, which were reviewed and developed by a panel of experts, also include education on the potential impact of 21st century technology, like social media and vaping, on students’ wellbeing.

Megara Bell, the director of Partners in Sex Education, which helps school districts develop and implement sex ed curriculum, says the new guidelines are long overdue.

“Health education has wildly changed since the ‘90s,” Bell said. “That’s entire generations of students that have gone all the way through K to 12 and been learning outdated information.”

Nationwide, school boards have come under increasing scrutiny and the center of culture war debates over curriculum related to race and the history of racism in America, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2022, the Massachusetts Family Institute led a campaign against new sex ed curriculum in Worcester after the school committee incorporated what’s known as the 3Rs, or the “Rights, Respect, Responsibility” curriculum. The organization also rallied parents to submit feedback in opposition to the state’s new sex ed framework this summer.

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“Our educational leaders have sent a message that they prioritize activist ideologies over constituent feedback,” Ian Huyett, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said in a statement Tuesday after the board voted to approve the revised framework. “Massachusetts Family Institute will continue to stand with parents to protect their kids from sexualization and gender confusion in schools.”

The new guidelines nod to those opposing viewpoints, asserting that “positive, affirming, inclusive approaches to human sexuality” are most effective for students’ health.

“This is just a basic understanding of how the world works – understanding how to be inclusive, how to use inclusive language, how to be accepting of people who may be different than you, how to be accepting that we live in an incredibly diverse world in many ways,” said Bell.

Adam Schepis , who told the board about his 14-year-old transgender son’s experience coming out, said the new recommendations could help lead to a more “informed, accepting, and empathetic future generation.”

”Even at a young age, many of these kids know that they’re different, but they don’t have the language to articulate it. It’s so important that we give kids windows through which they can see the world and mirrors that they can see themselves in,” Schepis said.

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Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a four percent raise for Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, whose salary this year was just over $262,000 . The raise will be retroactive to July 2 of this year, and Riley will receive another four percent raise on January 14, 2024, which a department spokesperson said is consistent with the raise schedule announced over the summer for all eligible managers in the executive branch. Riley has served as the state’s education commissioner since the board appointed him in 2018 .


Niki Griswold can be reached at niki.griswold@globe.com. Follow her @nikigriswold.