Fifth Time’s the Charm for Sex Ed Law?

Under the act, curriculum guidelines would cover topics including human anatomy, reproductive and sexual activity, and age-appropriate education

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The state dragged its sex education guidelines into a new millennium last year, updating health frameworks for pre-K through 12th grade students to include modern language on sexuality and consent. But a growing coalition that has pushed for the better part of a decade to keep sex ed in step with the times says there’s still more work to be done – if only the House of Representatives will get on board.

Supporters of the Healthy Youth Act are taking a fifth swing at passing the legislation, which has made it through the state Senate four times only to fizzle in the House. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week, and proponents believe the tide is finally turning in their favor in both chambers.

“I just think that the time is now,” said bill sponsor Sen. Sal DiDomenico, of Everett, who has pushed for the Healthy Youth Act for the past decade along with House sponsor Rep. Jim O’Day, of West Boylston. “I think there’s momentum built up behind the bill,” DiDomenico said. “The coalition has been working very hard, getting support and just showing people that we don’t have time to wait – these are kids who are still making decisions every single day and still talking about this every single day in their own little groups, and we need to get that information in their hands so they can make the decisions going forward.”

Though the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last year updated its sex and health education guidelines for the first time since 1999, with support from Gov. Maura Healey, the Healthy Youth Act has “teeth” that the framework does not, DiDomenico said.

Broadly, the act would require that state standards for sex and health education be inclusive, reflective of current science, and updated at least every 10 years. Cities and towns would be required to describe their sexual education curricula to the department each year, as well as report the number of students receiving that education.

The new DESE framework “is a good suggestion,” DiDomenico said. “It’s a floor, but not really digging deep into the curriculum standards.” For instance, he said, it still allows schools to choose to provide abstinence-only sex education. Under the Healthy Youth Act, any educational institution that offers a sex ed course has to provide “medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual health education.”

Under the act, health curriculum guidelines would cover human anatomy, reproductive and sexual activity, preventing sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS, effective use of contraceptives, discussing safe sexual activity and healthy relationships, and age-appropriate education on gender identity and sexual orientation that affirms a variety of gender and sexual identities.

The act would not override or change Massachusetts state law allowing schools to decide whether to offer sexual health courses and parents to opt their children out of that health segment. Parents and guardians would be informed by letter about the comprehensive sex education curriculum and informed of the opt-out option.

But the act would prevent the molasses-like evolution of sex ed frameworks that’s marked the last quarter-century. It isn’t enough, DiDomenico said, to bank on a sympathetic governor with an interest in inclusive health policy.

“We don’t know what the future brings us and who will be in that seat,” he said. “So if we do not have a regular updating process, then it’s up to the will of the people who are in charge at that particular moment in time and if they decide to kick the can down the road, or they decide not to address it, or they decide to just ignore it and hope that someone else will take it up at a later date.”

Gearing up for yet another tilt at the windmill, supporters have said this cycle that momentum is on their side – around 80 representatives and senators have signed on to versions of the bill, including members of House leadership. This push coincided last year with a wave of anxiety about reproductive choices and support for LGBTQ+ people.

Speaker Ron Mariano, who stood alongside elected leaders and reproductive health organizations to express support for protecting access to medication abortion, said at the time about the sex ed bill that he was “going through the details and having conversations with members.” His office did not respond to requests for comment.

This article first appeared on CommonWealth Beacon and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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