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Massachusetts Senate plans another sex education reform vote

The Massachusetts Statehouse.
Jesse Costa
The Massachusetts Statehouse.

Senators next week will vote again on a bill to update the state's sex education guidelines, something the chamber has already approved four times without getting buy-in from the House.

The Senate Committee on Ways and Means polled the so-called Healthy Youth Act (S 268) on Thursday morning, getting it ready for action next Thursday in the Senate's first formal session in four weeks.

The bill would update Massachusetts' sexual health laws and create guidelines for districts that opt into teaching sex education to go over human anatomy; how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, AIDS and unwanted pregnancy; effective use of contraceptives; how to safely discuss sexual activity in a relationship; skills to identify and prevent sexual violence and relationship violence; and age-appropriate and affirming education on gender identity and sexual orientation.

"As I said on the floor the last four times, we know our students are talking about these issues in the classroom or not," Sen. Sal DiDomenico, the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, said. "If they're not learning medically-accurate information taught in our classrooms, they're getting bad information that could have long-term consequences."

Though the Senate has voted to remodel the education frameworks four times in the last decade, House Democrats have never taken it up. On the House side, Rep. Jim O'Day has sponsored the bill for the last 10 years.

"When I started on this bill, the last time a framework for healthy youth, for sexual education, was addressed was in 1999," O'Day said last month as a guest on former Senate President Harriette Chandler's local cable show. "So here we are now in 2024, where we at least now have a good, solid, well-rounded, medically-accurate, age-appropriate, evidence-based [bill] ... and this is not a mandate for this bill. We do now have a framework that if you are going to teach -- if you are going to teach -- health ed, sexual education, it needs to be consistent with what's being taught in Framingham or Provincetown or Pittsfield or Worcester."

"That's a disgrace," Chandler, a supporter of the bill, said when O'Day initially raised the subject.

Sen. Adam Gomez is another supporter of the bill from the Ways and Means Committee. The Springfield democrat explained that the bill is particularly important to him because he has children of his own, and he used to work at the YMCA’s teen center where he frequently saw confusion around issues of puberty and sexuality.

Gomez said that the new bill will create a safer environment for these discussions in school, especially for LGBTQ+ students.

"Nobody should be living in fear, nobody should be living in shame," Gomez said. "Sexuality education is important, we want to make sure that everyone feels welcome within the school system and will be able to live their life the way they choose."

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education updated its sexual health education standards on its own accord last year to mirror some of what the so-called Healthy Youth Act calls for, after Gov. Maura Healey threw her support behind the controversial measure.

Under the board's new physical and sex education guidelines, 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.

Neither the guidelines nor DiDomenico and O'Day's bill would change the Massachusetts law that allows districts to opt-in to teaching sex education. The bill before senators would also require that parents get a letter at the beginning of the school year with details about the sex ed curriculum and the opportunity to opt their child out.

Asked by the News Service how the bill differs from the updated frameworks the board of education adopted, DiDomenico said passing the Healthy Youth Acts would codify the new guidelines.

The bill would require data collection on what's being taught in schools, reported to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education every two years. It would also require that the state revisit the framework every 10 years, as it took 24 years this time around to update the guidelines.

"Lastly, the framework is more of a suggestion for schools. Healthy Youth is an actual curriculum. And so there's a lot more flexibility with the framework. Theoretically 'abstinence only' can still be taught with the framework," DiDomenico said. "Under this bill, sex ed would talk about consent, LGBTQ language and healthy relationships as well. It's a lot more detailed, unlike a suggestion."

The senator added that 17 states require sex education to be medically accurate and 26 require it to be age appropriate. Massachusetts is not on either of those lists.

"I think that's a pretty compelling argument. Many states across the country have seen the value of this education," DiDomeinco said. "This bill will give students information they need to protect their health, have respectful relationships, and have a better future for themselves. In my mind, it's just as important as math and science and English."

NEPM  reporter Basil Pursley contributed to this report

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