South Coast area schools respond to state’s updated health, sex education guidelines

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Angie Ye/BU News Service)

By Stella Tannenbaum

Boston University Statehouse Program

It is now up to individual school districts to decide how the state’s health and sexual education curriculum is implemented after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted unanimously to update the state’s guidelines for the first time since 1999.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, representatives of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education presented the framework — complete with revisions from expert and public input solicited over a summer comment period.

“The overarching goal of this framework is to foster healthy, safe, equitable, and inclusive learning environments that enable success in school and in life for students of all identities and backgrounds,” Rachelle Engler Bennett, associate commissioner of DESE’s Student and Family Services office, said at the meeting.

The updated guidelines set new standards for what students of different age levels should know, aiming to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and addressing health concerns resulting from the widespread use of social media.

According to the guidelines, students in kindergarten through second grade should be introduced to healthy eating, basic hygiene, respect for different family structures, the consequences of bullying and how to seek help from trusted adults.

By the end of fifth grade, students learn about the changes that occur during puberty, the difference between use and misuse of prescription medications and more. Sixth through eighth graders are introduced to topics like prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and high school students learn about healthy relationships and how to identify different types of abusive behaviors.

Darcie Aungst, interim deputy superintendent of New Bedford Public Schools, wrote in an email that the district’s health education curriculum will not need to change as a result of the update.

“We are already using comprehensive, evidence-based health education curricula in New Bedford Public Schools,” she wrote.

In a statement, Dartmouth Public Schools administration wrote that as students deal with physical, social and emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the updated standards are important for ensuring all students have access to a “comprehensive health and physical education experience” during their time in the district.

“We look forward to working with our educators to unpack the new standards and ensure all students have an experience that supports their physical, mental, social and emotional wellbeing,” the statement read.

The guidelines were drafted and revised in consultation with experts and educational professionals before an initial version was released. Gov. Maura Healey backed the revisions, which don’t require approval from the Legislature, which has repeatedly failed to pass new standards.

Massachusetts Family Institute expressed opposition

During a two-month public comment period which began in late June, groups including the Massachusetts Family Institute expressed opposition to the framework, especially discussions of sex and gender identity.

While the organization did not give public testimony at the Sept. 19 meeting, it released a statement on its social media following the unanimous vote stating that the framework infringes on parents’ rights to “direct their children’s moral formation in the area of sexuality and gender identity.”

Proactive measures

Aungst wrote that the new guidelines are an important push toward more proactive measures to reduce drug addiction, unplanned teen pregnancies and the spread of communicable diseases.

“We, as a society, cannot keep investing all of our health resources into treatment or reactionary measures when health crises or epidemics emerge,” she wrote. “We must invest in prevention and in order to prevent, we must start teaching our children and adolescents how to make healthy choices, early in their lives.”

This story originally appeared in SouthCoast Today.

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