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Proposed Legislation Looks To Mandate Sex Education For Schools, Teach Dangers Of ‘Sexting’


Some Democratic Illinois lawmakers want to adopt more comprehensive sex education standards for K-12 schools to ensure students have a firm understanding of the importance of consent, the consequences of sharing underage sexually explicit material, and knowing when an action is considered sexual abuse.

This week, the House Elementary and Secondary Education: School Curriculum and Policies Committee approved a bill ( HB 24 ) that would require lessons on “sexting” — the act of sending and receiving explicit materials that are sexual in nature — in their sex education curriculum beginning in the sixth grade.

Beyond being a source for bullying and shaming, a student who has sexually explicit material from a classmate who is a minor can be charged with possessing child pornography.

The bill’s chief sponsor, State Rep. Maurice West (D-Rockford), said it’s important teachers convey the long-term consequences of sharing sexually explicit materials and how it can potentially compromise one’s credibility and future job prospects.

“It was very important before the pandemic,” West said. “But I've been hearing reports of how important this legislation is, even during and more so after the pandemic, because now sexting has been part of Zoom meetings or video conferencing meetings that our students are having for school.”

West said it’s also important for adults to acknowledge “sexting” occurs not just over text messages, but through a number of different means — including through direct messages on social media and image-sharing platforms like Snapchat.

“Any time digitally you try to show explicit images, there’s screenshots that you don’t know are occurring,” West said. “That can lead to bullying. It makes it easier for predators, sexual predators, to target our young people.”

In addition to addressing “sexting” in schools, state lawmakers are also proposing wholesale revisions to the state’s standards on sexual education.

Under current state statute, Illinois schools are not required to offer sex education courses to their students. State Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) said this needs to change.

Willis hopes her proposal ( HB 1736 ) will ensure schools will not only incorporate classroom discussion on the legal implications of sexting, but also lessons on healthy body image, different sexual orientations, and how to recognize sexual abuse.

Willis said one of the inspirations for changing current sex education standards was based on conversations Equality Illinois, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, has been doing with students from across the state. From those conversations, the organization learned that content related to LGBTQ issues or its relationship to sex education were not discussed frequently in schools.

Willis said it is important for comprehensive sex education curriculum to not only be medically accurate, but to also be inclusive and to not have any sort of “shaming” tone — either of one’s sexual orientation or personal decision to engage in sexual activity.

Willis’ proposal outlines age-appropriate curriculum standards for different grades from kindergarten to high school.

“For the lower grades, it does not necessarily go into sex ed., but more about relationship building and anti-bullying issues,” Willis said.

Parents and guardians would also still reserve the right to excuse their children from sex education courses.

This decision to scaffold sex education content area based on grade level is in line with education guidelines supported by, among others, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

SIECUS President and CEO Christine Soyong Harley said sex education can be a powerful vehicle for social change because it helps to provide young people the skills they need to affirm their identities and better manage their own sexual and reproductive freedoms.

“Teaching young kids in kindergarten about their body parts and what is appropriate or inappropriate is actually a prevention measure for sexual abuse of young children,” Harley said. “It can prevent sexual assault of young women when they get to college. It teaches them to be more affirming and accepting of their LGBTQ peers, creating safer school environments where there's less bullying.”

In a 2020 academic study by Montclair State University in New Jersey, researchers reviewed more than 200 studies conducted over the past 30 years to evaluate the effectiveness of sex education.

The researchers concluded that aside from helping students understand the risks of teenage pregnancy and spreading sexually transmitted infections, comprehensive sex education also improved students’ abilities to distinguish safe touches from inappropriate touches, reduced homophobic bullying, expanded views on traditional gender roles, and improved attitudes on reporting incidents of dating violence.

“When we adults are fearful of talking about sex to young people, they seek that information elsewhere and sometimes the information they receive is erroneous,” Harley said. “So it's incumbent upon us to be brave enough to talk about these issues, frankly and clearly so that young people are being given the tools that they need.”

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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