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Lawmakers hear calls to update public school curriculum

Senator Nick Collins (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2018)
Senator Nick Collins (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2018) (Craig F. Walker)

From the science of climate change to trauma response to mental illness, lawmakers and advocates on Tuesday made their case for updating the Massachusetts public school curriculum to equip students for modern realities.

The Joint Committee on Education held a hearing on a series of bills that propose instruction on topics supporters said deserve more attention in the classroom.

Much of the testimony focused on bills dealing with mental health education.

Representative Natalie Higgins and Senator Nick Collins offered bills that would make mental health education a required subject, while a Senator Dean Tran bill would establish mental health promotion as an optional component of high school health education.

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Angela Wallace, a graduate of Sharon’s public schools, said she attended a school district that “fosters a high-achieving environment” that created “an unspoken pressure for us to succeed in a rigorous academic space.”

“While sex education has been at the forefront of my health education for many years, there is also a dire need to allot time for curriculum regarding the symptoms and underlying factors that contribute to one’s mental health,” she said. “Numerous friends of mine have expressed to me their struggles with mental disorders that have lead to suicidal thoughts.”

Representative Alice Peisch, the House chair of the education panel, repeatedly reminded speakers that most curriculum is determined through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s regulations and frameworks, rather than mandated by lawmakers.

“There are very, very few subjects that we mandate be taught by legislation,” Pesich told supporters of the mental health bills, asking if they had statistics indicating how many schools offer such education now. “So it would be helpful to know whether we really need to have legislation that mandates this or if most schools are, in fact, incorporating it into their physical education or health curriculum.”

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Danna Mauch of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health told Peisch they would provide her with data.

“Schools do different things across the Commonwealth,” she said. “Some schools are very dedicated to addressing this routinely, and others are not and they perhaps are not aware of the importance of it or the value of it.”

Representative Ken Gordon of Bedford offered a bill addressing curriculum standards around science. Gordon’s bill would require that the science standards “include only peer-reviewed and age-appropriate subject matter.”

Gordon said such a requirement would mean, for instance, that an environmental science course “would not teach that the other side of climate change is to deny climate change when scientific evidence supports the existence of climate change.”