By Nick Neville
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in The Telegram.
BOSTON – Dozens of high school students from around the state gathered last Thursday at the Statehouse, urging lawmakers to pass a bill that would require any school offering sex education to use a “medically accurate, age-appropriate” curriculum with the hope of fostering healthy relationships.
The bill would require that school districts offering sex education teach both the benefits of delaying sex and how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease if one does have sex, but opponents argue the bill goes too far.
Rep. James O’Day, D-West Boylston, and Rep. Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, the bill’s lead co-sponsors, alongside representatives from the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, spoke in support of the legislation.
“What we we have seen tragically, but optimistically, in the last couple of weeks is that young people have the opportunity and the responsibility to drive public policy in the United States,” Mr. Brodeur told advocates.
Mr. O’Day stressed that the bill would not be a statewide mandate for sex education, and noted that parents would have the opportunity to remove their children from school-based programs if they deemed it inappropriate. He also said that curricula would be available for any parent to review at home.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, argued that it is effectively a mandate which goes too far.
“This just takes control away from their constituents, and gives it to the state Education Department, and they’re pushing stuff that is anything but age-appropriate and medically accurate,” he said.
While Mr. O’Day said that a “baseline curriculum” would be adopted and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would be involved in implementation, it would be up to local educators to decide the exact curriculum chosen in each district.
“As long as it’s medically accurate and age-appropriate – more than just abstinence is part of that and also consent,” he said. “There may four or five key aspects that have to be in there, and then each district would probably have the wherewithal to add a little bit to that.”
Mr. Beckwith said that parents should have the principal responsibility to discuss this information with their children, and not have it “usurped” by schools. Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, agrees in part.
“We at Planned Parenthood feel that parents should be the primary sexual educators of their children and help model healthy relationships,” she said. “The reality is that doesn’t always happen.”
Ailish Doherty, a senior at Wachusett Regional High School, said her parents were open about sex education at home, but she didn’t get comprehensive information until she joined the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ Central Massachusetts Get Real Teen Council.
GRTC members are 10-12th graders who conduct sex education workshops in schools, after-school programs and other community events throughout the Worcester area.
“It is time the stigma around sex education changes because times are changing,” Ms. Doherty, 17, said.
In light of the social awakening surrounding sexual misconduct in recent months, advocates say the legislation is critical to ensuring consent and respect.
“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all all solution to the #MeToo moment, just like there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the gun violence issue either,” Dr. Childs-Roshak said. “But I think this is one really important step that we can take, to say at least in Massachusetts, we don’t agree with what’s going on. We are going to take a stand.”
The bill also aims to be LGBTQ-inclusive. Brian Chandler, an English High School senior, said he thought he was “insane” because he liked other men, and nothing in his sex education class taught about attraction.
“Sex ed that isn’t inclusive is alienating us,” Mr. Chandler said. “Schools need to be teaching inclusive sex ed because my LGBTQ friends and I deserve better.”
A recent EMC Research poll found that 75 percent of 1,020 randomly selected Massachusetts voters believe sex education should be taught in schools. When asked whether voters would prefer the curriculum to be abstinence-only or comprehensive, 67 percent of Worcester County residents strongly agreed that it should be comprehensive.
While most do not have a problem with a program being “medically accurate and age-appropriate,” there is disagreement over what is deemed appropriate.
“The problem is the legislation doesn’t really define what those terms mean,” Mr. Beckwith said.
Mr. Beckwith worries that curricula would be too closely aligned with ones the DESE has preapproved, including Planned Parenthood’s Get Real curriculum for middle schoolers. He cited a number of examples that mentioned oral and anal sex as evidence of why he deemed it inappropriate.
Because of this, Mr. Beckwith would prefer to see an opt-in provision as opposed to an opt-out one, which would ensure affirmative permission by parents before schools introduce these sensitive topics.
“It’s not mandated. We’re not forcing anything on anybody, but what we are trying to do is be comprehensive in our approach to making certain that we keep kids safe, keep them healthy, keep them informed,” Mr. O’Day said.
A version of the bill passed the Senate last session, but never reached the House floor for a vote. The current legislation, H.3704, has again passed the Senate, and is awaiting further action in the Health Care Financing Committee with a reporting deadline of March 28.