BOSTON — Gov. Maura Healey moved Wednesday to update the state’s sex education guidelines for the first time in 24 years.
The updates are “inclusive, medically accurate and age appropriate,” Healey said at a State House press conference about the proposal, which she said covers LGBTQ+ health and wellness, mental and emotional health, personal safety, bodily autonomy, dating safety, violence prevention, physical health and hygiene, nutritionally balanced eating, physical activity, substance use disorder, and public, community and environmental health.
In proposing the regulatory updates, the governor is trying to accomplish by the start of next school year something that lawmakers have been unable to accomplish for over a decade.
Healey’s description of the framework covers much of the same ground and language as legislation aimed at updating schools’ approaches to sex education, a bill that has died several sessions in a row in the Massachusetts House.
The Senate has passed the “Healthy Youth Act” four times in recent years to remodel sex education, to teach students about human anatomy, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, effective use of contraceptives, dating violence and gender and sexual identity.
But after the bills have hit a wall in the House over and over, its longtime House sponsor Rep. Jim O’Day said last month that he felt with a governor more friendly to the idea in the corner office, that the bill might get off the ground this session. House Speaker Ron Mariano was not present at Wednesday’s press conference in the State House Library, which Reps. O’Day and Sean Garballey attended.
“Six months into this current administration shows how committed the governor and her team are to our youth, to our education system, the LGBTQ+ population and reproductive health care,” O’Day said.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education plans to vote at their meeting next Tuesday on whether to open the health curriculum framework draft for public comment, after which educators, parents, advocates and other members of the public will have 60 days to share their thoughts on the new regulations. After the public comment period, the board could revise the draft and vote on implementing the new framework, likely later this summer or in the fall.
The last time the regulations were updated was in 1999.
Through Healey’s proposal and the board vote, the new framework would not need to pass through the Legislature.
O’Day said he has not gotten a chance to review the proposed framework “line by line” yet, but he believes that the updates are in the same spirit of the Healthy Youth Act.
“Most of what we’ve seen in there certainly covers most of our concerns and thoughts about what needs to be in there,” he said.
The draft standards include different guidelines for four student age groups – pre-K through second grade, grades 3-5, grades 6-8, and grades 9-12 each have their own guidelines.
For the youngest students, the standards have to do with learning about healthy eating, understanding dietary restrictions and learning about cultural differences with food; managing stress and demonstrating emotional self-control; practicing hygienic habits such as washing hands; learning how to respond in emergency situations; participating in physical activity; discussing gender-role stereotypes and treating all people with respect; defining bullying and what healthy relationships look like; practicing understanding emotions; 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 human and sex trafficking, and more specific, science-based methods for physical education.
If the board approves the standards as the Healey administration unveiled them on Tuesday, it would still be up to local school districts to opt in to providing sex education in their schools, per state law. The guidelines would only apply to districts who chose to teach sex ed.
“The updates we’re proposing here today are carefully researched. They’ve been informed and reviewed by panels of experts of more than 40 educators and health experts,” Healey said. “These updates are also inclusive. They recognize gay, queer, and trans students’ identities and needs. That’s important and it’s not something we’re going to shy away from. Our LGBTQ+ students face higher risks of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and suicidality.”
The updated curriculum will relieve LGBTQ+ students of answering their peers’ questions regarding gender and sexuality, according to Alia Cusolito, a member of the Gender Sexuality Alliance Student Leadership Council. Under the existing curriculum, Cusolito said LGBTQ+ students feel obligated to field peers’ “inappropriate questions” about their identities.
“They sometimes feel like they can use us as encyclopedias,” Cusolito said. “Our peers’ lack of knowledge leads to uncomfortable and potentially unsafe experiences for everyone.”
Comprehensive sexual education in the classroom will also prevent students from turning to the internet to answer their questions on sex, where they may encounter inaccurate or unsafe information, Cusolito said. Instead, teachers will offer students reliable facts and guidance.
“If they are uncomfortable in any way, or they are needing more help with talking through something, then they have someone to turn to instead of just getting that knowledge and then being left on their own to deal with it,” Cusolito said.
Cusolito acknowledged that some families may not support the proposed curriculum, but advised that students are already learning about sexuality and gender, unmonitored on the internet.
“It makes the most sense to me to have them be learning accurate information from a place that is trusted and able to keep them safe,” Cusolito said.