Changing sex ed

Supporters say proposal would guide schools toward inclusive curriculum

A controversial bill passed by the state legislature aims to guide and expand sex education curriculum being taught in Illinois. Lobbyists say the bill would help schools provide age-appropriate lessons that include violence prevention and LGBTQ identities.

Brigid Leahy, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said the measure would prevent bullying, abuse and violence and promote healthy relationships. The legislation, referred to as the Keeping Youth Safe and Healthy Bill, is a collaborative effort involving previous bills, including the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children's Health Act (REACH Act), which stalled last year after the onset of the pandemic. The Illinois Healthy Youth Act, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, is now part of the new measure.

One major change to the legislation was to take the mandate part out of it, said Leahy. "It outlines the requirements for teaching personal health and safety education in grades K through five, and then sexual health education in grades six through 12." Some opponents argue that is basically a mandate. Proponents say the bill would help standardize and update existing sex ed lessons and parents could choose to opt out of having their children being taught the curriculum.

If Gov. JB Pritzker signs the bill into law, the Illinois State Board of Education – which is neutral on the bill – would have until August 2022 to approve new standards. The curriculum would be based on the National Sexuality Education Standards, which were created by experts from organizations focused on health and education, such as the American School Health Association. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network also helped guide the standards.

Inclusion

Mike Ziri is director of public policy for Equality Illinois – an LGBTQ-rights organization. He said work on the legislation began about two years ago and involved speaking with students at LGBTQ community centers in Springfield and other parts of the state. "Those conversations formed the foundation for the REACH Act," said Ziri.

Ziri said the discussions made it "crystal clear" that "LGBTQ students did not see themselves represented in the contents (of current sexual health education). Their needs were not being met." Ziri said in one case, a transgender student asked a teacher if there could be LGBTQ-inclusive content in class, and the teacher suggested the student teach the class about it. Other students said they were taught being gay meant they would become infected with HIV.

"It's important that LGBTQ youth are affirmed," said Ziri. He said while working on the legislation, he has consistently heard that current curriculum is shame-based. "We have the opportunity to modernize the standards and to make sure that all youth are being included, that they're being affirmed and that their needs are being addressed."

Violence prevention

The Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) – a network of rape crisis centers based in Springfield – is another proponent. "Education plays a key role in the prevention of sexual violence and harassment because in order to understand some of the basic tenets of body safety, personal safety and consent you have to have language and understanding about what they mean," Carrie Ward, executive director of ICASA, told Illinois Times. 

Ward said the concepts of consent, setting boundaries and acceptable interactions with others are important facets of education for all students. "Everyone is susceptible to abuse, beginning with very young children," said Ward. "Whether it's sexual harassment, sexual assault – any kind of harm that comes to someone else – that's the fault of the offender." Some children might come from environments with unhealthy dynamics, and school might be the place they can best learn age-appropriate lessons on safety, said Ward. 

Opposition

Opponents of the measure include the Catholic Conference of Illinois. During a May 25 legislative committee, Ralph Rivera spoke on behalf of Illinois Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, and the Illinois Pro-Family Alliance, a nonprofit that lobbies the legislature on "biblical principles" – according to its website. Rivera said he and those he represents had concerns the legislation would promote LGBTQ identities and abortion.

"If you look at the standards, I think many of you will say, 'No, it's not all age-appropriate,'" argued Rivera. State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, echoed the sentiment. "I've heard from several of my teachers who feel very uncomfortable – who don't have the training," she said. She said many of her fellow Republicans agree that the measure is an overreach. "I strongly, strongly recommend a no vote on this," she told the committee.

Outlook

"I believe this bill is addressing issues that we know youth are dealing with. We know that trans youth exist," said Brogan Long during the hearing. Long attends the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. "We know that youth deal with sexual assault." Long said as a young gay person he believes he and other LGBTQ youth deserve reliable information from trusted sources.

The measure passed both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. "Students who have long been stigmatized and or made invisible in these courses, such as LGBTQ students and pregnant and parenting students, will now feel affirmed and seen in their classrooms," said Chelsea Diaz, advocacy associate with ACLU of Illinois, in a news release following the final vote. The measure now heads to the governor for a signature.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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