Sex education in the land of the Puritans

The Northampton High School student union surveyed students last year, asking them what they thought were the school’s biggest problems.

“We got a lot of people saying sex ed,” said 16-year-old Brynt Goggins in a story by the Daily Hampshire Gazette that suggested students across Hampshire County are dissatisfied with the way sex education is taught in high schools. Students complained that not enough emphasis was placed on the issue of consent. Others said there was not enough information for LGBTQ students.

Massachusetts is one of 26 states that don’t mandate that local schools teach sex education. If schools do teach sex education, the state provides guidelines that teachers can follow, but those guidelines were written 20 years ago, in 1999. Revised guidelines are due out later this year.

Legislation is pending on Beacon Hill that would provide a bit more structure from the state. Under the legislation, schools that decide to offer sex education (still no mandate) must teach the subject in a way that is age-appropriate and medically accurate. The sex ed course would also have to address LGBTQ issues and teach about consent, abstinence, and safe sex. Parents would be given the choice to take their children out of the program if they choose.

The sex ed legislation has been banging around Beacon Hill for close to eight years. It passed the Senate last year but failed to win approval in the House.

Margery Eagan, a Boston Globe columnist who remembers learning all sorts of crazy stuff about sex in her high school, said she can’t believe the reticence of Massachusetts political leaders on sex education. “Here we are, in supposedly enlightened Massachusetts, with backward-thinking, even negligent political leaders, failing to act in the midst of #MeToo, a nationwide epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and assaults on abortion and birth control,” she wrote.

The situation in Worcester exemplifies the problem. Worcester’s school system spent more than a year developing a sex ed curriculum, only to pull it from consideration early this year when fierce opposition surfaced on the school committee. Maureen Binienda, the Worcester schools superintendent, offered up an alternative curriculum but withdrew it as well, deciding to wait for the state guidelines.

Worcester Magazine, citing emails it obtained, traced the opposition to the  city’s sex ed curriculum to a small group of religious conservatives led by former school committee member Mary Mullaney. In one email to Binienda, Mullaney laid out her thinking.

“Five years from now the situation will be the same or worse because what is lacking here is strong families, good moral upbringing, fathers in homes, faith in a higher power. We put Band-Aids on huge problems and feel good that we are ‘trying,’” Mullaney wrote. “You know better than anyone in Worcester — because you are the REAL thing when it comes to urban kids — that these children are spiritually and psychologically impoverished, neglected, abused. They need love, guidance, support, alternatives to the crap they see around them. Condoms will not save their souls. I am not sure if they will even help their bodies as they are too young to use them well, but I know for sure that condoms will not heal their soul or solve the loneliness in their hearts.”

The situation remains tense in Worcester. Planned Parenthood gave a presentation at a youth leadership symposium last month, calling for a comprehensive sex education curriculum in the Worcester schools. City officials and School Committee members condemned the presentation, with city officials calling it “overly political.”




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