Why hasn’t Mass. sex ed changed in 20 years?
We are risking a lot by living in the past
IF YOUR CHILD or grandchild was being taught math or science with a 1999 curriculum, would you stand for it?
The answer is likely no. If we want our children to be well positioned for the future, we must teach them using up-to-date materials and standards. The guidelines for sex ed curriculum in Massachusetts haven’t changed since 1999, which is before nearly every current K-12 student in our Commonwealth was born. And while the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is diligently working to update these materials, even when they are complete, it will still be completely optional for school districts to use them.
We are risking a lot. Looking at the origins of the current #MeToo movement, which advocates for people who were harassed, abused, and in some cases assaulted because they lacked the power or backing to find safety, we know that we must provide young people the tools to identify harassment and empower themselves to prevent becoming a victim. Such an education must start in the formative years; it must be age-appropriate and medically accurate.
Rates of sexually transmitted infections continue to rise in Mass. More than two-thirds of chlamydia cases and over half of the gonorrhea cases occurred in people ages 15 to 24, according to Planned Parenthood. Students must be taught how to prevent these diseases as well as unwanted pregnancies, alongside abstinence. We must hope that people choose abstinence but ensure that they are prepared if they do not.
Recent state data indicate that LGBTQ youth in our Commonwealth continue to face startling disparities. When compared to other students, LGBTQ youth are:
- 3.5 times more likely to have skipped school in the past month because they felt unsafe;
- 2.7 times more likely to have experienced sexual contact against their will; and
- 3.9 times more likely to have made a suicide attempt in the past year.
LGBTQ youth, particularly those of color, make up a large proportion of people living with HIV in Massachusetts, and the percentage of sexual minority men under 30 diagnosed with HIV increased by nearly half while the percentage of sexual minority men over 30 fell by 37 percent. We are failing in educating our young people on maintaining their sexual health.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Beyond the ongoing effort by DESE to update the health curriculum guidelines, An Act Relative to Healthy Youth (H. 410) will require schools that elect to teach sex ed to include a broad range of topics, including the benefits of delaying sex, healthy relationships, consent, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and the prevention of pregnancy and STIs. The state Senate has approved the bill and Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated the House will soon consider it.
The Healthy Youth Act also strengthens the rights of parents by ensuring that schools provide information on their sex education policies and their chosen curriculum. Under the bill, parents will always have the opportunity to review what is taught. What the bill does not do is require communities to even teach sexual education or mandate one particular curriculum. It puts guidelines in place that communities can use to update their approach and curriculum.
Opponents of this bill will caution about a slippery slope – that the teaching of sex ed leads teenagers to take more risk; that teaching students about birth control will cause teenagers to become sexually active sooner. Yet there is absolutely no data to support their concerns.
The Guttmacher Institute notes that, “A large body of research has found no evidence that providing young people with sexual and reproductive health information and education results in increased sexual risk-taking.”
Just as important, the 2017 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 61 percent of high school students in the state had not talked with their parents about sexuality or prevention of HIV, STIs, or pregnancy in the last year. We cannot rely on children getting the information they need at home.
John Gatto is senior vice president of community health at JRI, a nonprofit based in Needham that advances social justice. Corey Prachniak-Rincón is a program director at JRI and also serves as director of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth.