By Bob Katzen

The Massachusetts State Senate 33-2, approved and sent to the House a bill requiring that all public schools offering a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum must “provide medically accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education.”

Under current law, public schools are not required to teach sex education and the bill does not change that but rather mandates that any schools that choose to teach sex education are required to follow a curriculum, based on age, that includes human anatomy, reproduction and sexual development; the benefits of abstinence and delaying sexual activity; the importance of effectively using contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS; ways to effectively discuss safe sexual activity; relationship and communication skills to form healthy, respectful relationships free of violence, coercion and intimidation; and information about gender identity and sexual orientation for all students, including recognition that people have different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.

The measure also requires any school offering sex education to notify parents about the school’s sex education curriculum and gives parents the right to withdraw a student from the instruction and create a process for parents to inspect the program instruction materials before the start of the course.

Supporters said that under the bill, local cities and towns still have the authority and power to decide whether sex education is taught in their schools. They said the measure will ensure that schools that choose to teach sex education will have a framework to follow. They noted the bill will prepare students to make healthy decisions and will reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Opponents said local school committees, parents, teachers and administrators should have the authority to decide what will be included in any sex education course that is offered. They noted the bill gives way too much power to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to mandate what kind of things are taught. They argued that the definition of “age-appropriate” in the bill is vague and basically leaves that entire decision up to DESE.

“I am very proud that the Massachusetts Senate has once again reaffirmed our commitment to this common sense healthy policy that will ensure our youth have the tools needed to protect their health and form respectful relationships,” said Sen. Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett), the sponsor of the bill. “This legislation makes it clear that sex education in the commonwealth must be inclusive for all students and emphasize the importance and necessity of consent. I would like to thank and congratulate the many advocates who have partnered with us on this legislation and worked tirelessly to ensure Massachusetts youth have the information they need to build the bright futures they deserve— without shame or judgement.”

“The idea that a mandated sex education curriculum can be implemented in a school district without a required vote or public hearing of the elected school committee is a direct affront to local control and a community’s ability to decide what is best for its children,” said Sen. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton), one of the two senators who voted against the measure. “I believe that parents and communities should be able to decide how they wish to teach their children and students about sensitive topics like sex education. The controversial nature of this legislation is the reason why it has failed to become law for multiple sessions now.”

“There are issues that should be left to the local communities to decide,” said Sen. Dean Tran (R-Fitchburg). “No two students are alike and no two school districts are the same. Educational curriculums should be left to the local communities to devise and implement, not by special interest groups and mandate by the lawmakers.”

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