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Massachusetts education board updates sex ed guidelines

FILE - A classroom. In this Aug. 18, 2020 file photo, math teacher Doug Walters sits among empty desks as he takes part in a video conference with other teachers at Twentynine Palms Junior High School in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Gregory Bull
FILE - A classroom. In this Aug. 18, 2020 file photo, math teacher Doug Walters sits among empty desks as he takes part in a video conference with other teachers at Twentynine Palms Junior High School in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Massachusetts students will receive sex and health education that is intended to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community and teach about bodily autonomy, mental and emotional health, dating safety, nutrition, sexually transmitted infections and consent, after a board of education vote on Tuesday.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday unanimously adopted a new set of curriculum frameworks on health education — the first time these guidelines have been updated since 1999.

The new standards include different guidelines for four age groups: pre-K through second grade, grades 3-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12.

For the youngest students, the standards have to do with learning about healthy eating; managing stress and demonstrating self-control; practicing hygienic habits such as washing hands; learning how to respond in emergency situations; discussing gender-role stereotypes and treating all people with respect; defining bullying; and explaining why taking medicine as directed is important, among other goals.

As children get older, the guidelines include education about sex, healthy romantic relationships, gender-identity, substance use and misuse, how to identify and stay safe from sex trafficking, and more specific, science-based methods for physical education.

The frameworks are guidelines, rather than a specific curriculum for districts, and schools may choose to opt-in to teaching sex and health education.

The board voted in favor of the new standards on DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley's recommendation.

Adam Schepis, who has a transgender son in the state's public school system, said during the board meeting's public comment section on Tuesday that his son came out in fifth grade.

"If you were to meet him, you would meet a happy, confident, buoyant kid who loves to swim, play drums, hang out with friends and listen to heavy metal. He's no different from you or I," Schepis said. "However, there's a small but vocal crowd who hate him just for existing, and would like to erase him and other kids like him... I can't always be there to protect him. That's why these guidelines are so important."

The board's vote comes after a summer-long public comment period, during which the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education received nearly 5,400 comments via email, mail and online survey responses.

A summary provided by the department shows that slightly more opposing feedback was submitted. However, the summary points out that many of these responses were duplicates.

About 53% of respondents disagreed that the framework represents "a reasonable progression of expectations for student learning" and "set of expectations for student learning." Similarly, 2,910 of the emails and mail received expressed opposition to the revised draft, though, again, the department points out that there were many duplicate emails.

Feedback included concerns over the "age-appropriateness and implementation" of sexual health and sexual orientation content, as well as religious objections, concerns over using medically accurate terms for genitals in pre-K through second grade and opposition to the inclusion of gender identity.

The department's response to these concerns is that the standards related to these issues are based in research and that members of the LGBTQ+ community are a protected class in Massachusetts law, and "the Department is committed to ensuring that all students have access to public school education free from discrimination."

Based on the feedback, the guidelines relating to gender identity were separated from those related to sexuality and sexual health to acknowledge the distinction between the two, DESE's summary said.

Other changes based on public comments include adding gambling as an addictive behavior, following concerns related to "the rise of online gaming and social media advertisements." The department also updated the standards to make the nutrition education guidelines more inclusive and equitable; clarified language to differentiate between human trafficking and sexual exploitation; and added standards starting in third grade to ensure that menstruation is specifically identified, based on public feedback.

Though opponents of the new guidelines have come before the board to speak against the updates in the past, none came to speak at Tuesday's meeting.

There were, however, a handful of supporters who urged the board to vote in favor of adopting the framework prior to their vote.

"It's critical that LGBTQ kids can see themselves and hear about themselves in schools," Schepis said. "Even at a young age, many of these kids know that they're different, but they don't have the language to articulate it. It's so important that we give kids windows through which they can see the world and mirrors that they can see themselves in. In addition to helping these kids by providing age-appropriate education to students about diversity in sex and gender, I believe that will lead to a more informed, accepting and empathetic future generation."

Sen. Jason Lewis, D- Winchester, Joint Committee on Education co-chair, and Rep. Jim O'Day, D-Worcester, who has filed the so-called Healthy Youth Act to update the state's sex education guidelines for the last 10 years, also came before the board to voice their support. The Senate passed the bill to remodel the framework four times, but House Democrats never took it up.

A total of 12 lawmakers submitted public comments, though the content of their feedback was not shared in the department's public summary of comments.

"Massachusetts is leading the way by providing a health and physical education framework that is inclusive, medically accurate and age-appropriate to help them make decisions that are right for their health and wellbeing. We are grateful to the Board for approving the first update to the health education frameworks in more than two decades, and we appreciate the input we received from residents across the state," Gov. Maura Healey said in a statement, after she hosted a press conference in June to push for the framework updates.

In his comments, Lewis said the previous gubernatorial administration blocked the new sex education guidelines.

"This update is long overdue," the Winchester Democrat said. "DESE began the process of updating the 1999 framework in June of 2018. The previous Baker administration did a disservice to the students and health educators of the commonwealth by not allowing the revised standards to be released. I'm pleased that within the first six months of the new administration, Gov. Maura Healey and Secretary Tutwiler took action."

Districts can choose to implement the new framework as soon as they wish, DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis said, but overall, the department expects the 2023-2024 school year to be a planning year, with implementation taking place on a larger scale starting in fall of 2024.

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