By Sara Magalio
BU News Service
BOSTON – It was back to school for House members Wednesday as a Worcester lawmaker, sexual health educators and local high school students gathered in the Statehouse for “Sex Ed for Legislators,” a sampling of a sex-education curriculum proposed for schools.
“We are all adults in this building, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we all know all there is to know about healthy relationships,” Rep. James O’Day, D-West Boylston, said of the “tongue-in-cheek” event title his staff devised for the briefing, which was meant to demonstrate the content that would be included in a standardized sex-education curriculum.
O’Day is a lead sponsor of the legislation, which would mandate comprehensive sex education in schools that opt to teach the topic. This would include medically accurate, LGBTQ-inclusive, age-appropriate information and discussion on consent. Parents would be allowed to opt their children out of the classes.
One opponent, the Massachusetts Family Institute, has described the measure as calling for curriculum that is “one-size-fits-all” and “containing offensive reproduction and sexuality materials.”
O’Day and Paul Brodeur, now mayor of Melrose, originally filed the legislation almost a decade ago. It passed in the Senate three separate times, with a version most recently approved on a 33-2 vote in January, but it has yet to be passed in the House.
O’Day met with House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday to discuss the importance of the legislation.
“The only thing that we need here is to educate our young people, so that they have a full and robust education about their health, about their lives and about their relationships,” O’Day said. “I’m a former social worker and I hear all the time, ‘Oh, this is a topic that can only be talked about in the home.’ Guess what? When I was going to people’s homes as a social worker, no one was talking about it.”
Worcester has made attempts to improve sex education in its schools, not without controversy. Last month, the Worcester School Committee approved a motion from its chairman, Mayor Joseph Petty, to begin anew the process of coming up with a sex education curriculum this year.
O’Day kicked off the briefing by talking about the obstacles the legislation has faced, but expressed enthusiasm for the increased support for it in the House.
“I do feel momentum building on this bill. I have been around and working on this bill for a long time, and we’ve not had this amount of folks show up to talk about this bill,” O’Day said.
The majority of the event involved interactive demonstrations of potential teaching tools, led by members of Partners in Sex Education.
Activities geared for juniors in high school challenged participants to think about consent, boundaries and the preferences of others through filling out questionnaires, discussing the responses in small groups and sharing thoughts with the entire room.
Katia Santiago-Taylor, an advocacy and legislative affairs manager for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center who facilitated the exercises, prompted attendees to think about how unhealthy relationships portrayed in the media can affect adolescent ideas of what a relationship should look like.
“I often talk about the exposure that the youth are faced with when it comes to media,” Santiago-Taylor said. “If schools are not doing their jobs about giving them the tools, and some parents don’t have the capacity or the information to teach them, and then they are exposed to so much in the media, with all of these factors we are really just not giving them the chance to lead a healthy life.”
Santiago-Taylor said ignoring the reality that teenagers engage in sexual activities is a disservice to their health, and that teaching sex education is an “essential component of health care.”
“Statistically speaking, we know that a lot of high schoolers are engaging in sexual relations, so we want to give them tools for them to make the best choices to protect themselves,” Santiago-Taylor said. “Abstinence is an option, and it’s a part of comprehensive sex ed, but we also know that many students and many young people are engaging in sexual relations. Once they engage in it, we want to make sure they are protected.”
She also talked about her own family.
“This morning, I drove my daughter to school and she didn’t even talk to me. She just put her headphones in and was like, ‘Just drop me off as far away as you can.’ If someone like me, who loves to talk about sex ed … can’t get through to her 14-year-old, I can only imagine people who don’t know how to talk about it and don’t have the resources to do it, how they could do a good job,” Santiago-Taylor said.
After the briefing, when asked about what got him inspired to work on legislation pertaining to sex education in schools some eight years ago, O’Day also cited his children as a catalyst.
“In my sons’ high school and middle school in West Boylston, they were maybe doing a little bit more than the Worcester public schools relative to sex education, but it wasn’t very comprehensive,” O’Day said. “I have recognized over the years that we have the ability to teach calculus and trigonometry, and I don’t think with sex education it’s a subject where we have the professional capacity to provide good, solid, comprehensive evidence-based information to our students.”
The briefing culminated with 15-year-old Beatrice Croteau, a sophomore at Arlington High School and the vice president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, speaking about her experiences as an LGBTQ teen in health classes and sharing anonymous stories from other students.
Croteau honed in on her first experiences in health class in the seventh grade, and how her teacher only mentioned LGBTQ people “in passing,” causing her to feel “alienation.”
“In that class, at the end of one of our lessons, [our teacher] turned to all of us and she said, ‘You know, you guys should actually be friends with gay people, they’re actually pretty nice.’ I know she meant well, I think she meant well, but it is just very uncomfortable to be described as a project, like go be friends with the gay kid, they’re pretty nice,” Croteau said.
Croteau then shared anonymous statements sent in from other members of Arlington’s Gay-Straight Alliance.
One student talked about having LGBTQ issues only addressed in one 45-minute session, and another student said they had to turn to the internet for their questions on LGBTQ sexual health, because they had been opted out of school sex ed classes due to their family’s beliefs.
“Passing this bill won’t help kids who have parents like that, but it’s still important,” Croteau said. “Not everyone can talk about this with their parents, and even if you can, your parents might not be comfortable talking about issues specific to the LGBTQ community.”
Before the briefing, Croteau expressed the importance of speaking at an event like this for both herself and for other Massachusetts teens.
“Through sharing negative experiences in class, we can look at how to improve them, and how to make positive change not just for our school, but for all schools in Massachusetts,” Croteau said.
This article was originally published in The Telegram.