Jul 5, 2023 - Education

Public gets a say in updating Massachusetts sex ed lessons

Illustration of an eggplant and peach drawn on a chalkboard.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

The commonwealth is reworking guidance for local school districts teaching K-12 sexual education and giving parents and the public the chance to weigh.

What's happening: The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is accepting public comment until Aug. 28 on Gov. Healey's plan to update the state's sex ed framework for the first time since 1999.

  • The plan lays out standards that local school districts could select to build a custom sex ed curriculum.

Be smart: Parents could still opt students out from sex ed classes.

Zoom in: The state guidelines would expand to include lessons on LGBTQ+ health, consent, personal safety, violence and emotional health, Healey said at a press conference.

  • They would include physical health issues like eating habits, substance use disorder, hygiene and environmental health.

Details: Lessons would be broken down into four age groups.

  • Pre-K through second grade students would learn about emotional control and bullying and discuss gender roles.
  • Older elementary students would begin to learn about mental health, puberty, internet safety, healthy relationships, differences between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • Middle school students would learn decision-making around safety and sexual health, pregnancy, consent, STIs , readiness and the consequences of sexual activity.
  • High schoolers would focus on healthy relationships, credible information sources, the benefits and risks of various sexual behaviors including safe sex and abstinence, and having respect for others' orientations, expressions and identities.

The other side: Social conservatives are asking opponents to protest the changes.

  • The right-leaning Massachusetts Family Institute objects to the inclusion of "comprehensive sexuality education" — or CSE.
  • CSE's goal is to provide age-appropriate and accurate information about sexuality and health, but the institute said it's "designed to change the sexual and gender norms of society" in a letter to supporters.

What's next: The state education board will consider the draft plan after public comment in late August or September.

Between the lines: Healey's plan is very similar to a bill progressive Democrats have been repeatedly unable to pass through the state Legislature.

  • The left-leaning Senate routinely passed the bill, but more conservative House leaders have blocked several votes on it over the past decade.

Deehan's thought bubble: Healey's move to update the framework through executive action means squeamish House Democrats no longer need to take a hard vote in socially conservative districts.


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