BOSTON – Students will be taught sex education in a “medically accurate, age appropriate” way under a proposal working its way through Beacon Hill, but critics say the move will strip local school districts of their authority.
The proposal, which is teed up for a vote in the Senate on Thursday, will set statewide curriculum that requires schools that teach sex education to provide information about contraception and safe sexual activity, gender identity and sexual orientation, among other topics.
Districts wouldn’t be required to adopt the guidelines, under the proposal, and parents would have to be notified in advance about the programs and allowed to opt their children out of participating.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, opposes the measure because he says it takes away local control from school districts and promotes the use of contraception and other standards that some parents might find inappropriate.
“The bottom line is it takes away local control from school committees and parents and puts it in the hands of state bureaucrats,” he said. “If you look at the type of curriculum schools would use, some of it is extraordinarily offensive and not appropriate for kids.”
Beckwith had pushed for provisions to the bill that would require parents to “opt in” for their children to participate, but lawmakers didn’t include that in the Senate version.
Groups such as the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts back the changes, saying they will apply statewide standards to what’s currently a hodgepodge of sex ed programs that vary by school district.
Jennifer Hart, the league’s director of education, said the proposal will “help communities offer comprehensive sex education curricula that empower young people to take care of their health and make informed decisions that are right for them.”
“Every young person deserves to know how to stay healthy and safe, but in Massachusetts public schools, there is no guarantee that young people are receiving the medically accurate, age-appropriate, consent-based and LGBTQ-inclusive information they need,” she said.
Planned Parenthood and other groups backing the changes say studies have shown telling teens to “just say no” doesn’t prevent them from having sex.
Hart said statewide standards will also help “combat sexual assault, harassment and teen dating violence, the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections among our state’s young people, and the persisting disparities in unintended pregnancy rates.”
Senators have filed more than a dozen amendments to the proposal, which will be debated and voted on Thursday before the upper chamber takes up a final version of the bill.
The measure would still need to pass the House of Representatives, where previous sex ed proposals have stalled, and survive Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto pen.
Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester, has filed amendments to the bill that would require the state to review schools’ sex ed curriculum every two years and for districts to give parents at least 30 days’ notice before a sex ed program begins. He also wants to include “age-appropriate guidelines” for child exploitation awareness in the sex ed curriculum.
Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg, has filed an amendment that would require communities to hold public hearings and a vote on new sex ed guidelines before they are adopted.
And Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, has filed an amendment that would require sex ed curriculum to include training for students to be aware of adult sexual predators.
Massachusetts doesn’t require sex ed classes, leaving districts to decide whether to offer them and what kinds of standards to incorporate into local curriculums.
Some districts, including Lawrence, offer classes emphasizing abstinence in addition to the use of birth control and other forms of contraception.
In Massachusetts, the number of teenagers having babies has declined dramatically, which experts attribute largely to access to birth control and sex ed classes.
Statewide 1,932 babies were born to teenage mothers in 2016, according to the latest data from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
The state’s teen birth rate that year was 8.5 per 1,000 girls -- lowest in the nation.
Despite that, teen birth rates remain high in some communities north of Boston including Lawrence, Lynn and Haverhill.
Baker, a pro-choice Republican, has increased funding for sex-ed programs that focus on contraception and signed a bill in 2017 requiring insurers to cover birth control without a copay.
Despite that, Massachusetts is one of 35 states — including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and West Virginia — that has accepted grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to fund projects that teach teens to “refrain from non-marital sexual activity” and avoid risky behaviors such as underage drinking and drug use.
In 2018, the state received a $808,000 federal grant that funded programs at several local nonprofits focusing on youth ages 10 to 15 with “evidence-based programming.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.