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GOP Lawmakers Say ‘National Sex Education Standards’ Are Too Explicit For Illinois Schools


Democratic state lawmakers want to adopt state sex education standards that are aligned with a national model. But Republicans say the national standards would require teachers to present explicit material at too young an age.

In Illinois, public schools aren’t required to offer sex education courses. Earlier in the spring legislative session, State Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison) proposed mandating sex ed and aligning that curriculum with culturally competent and medically accurate standards.

“Things are not being taught in schools and students are exploring the Internet on their own and they can end up with misinformation, and that is not what we want to see,” Willis said at a House committee hearing earlier this week.

Although the current proposal, SB 818 , no longer includes a mandate for schools to offer sex education, it would require curriculm to align with the National Sex Education Standards created by the Future of Sex Education initative. Were the bill to be signed into law, educators could either teach the new education curriculum, or not teach sex ed at all.

Republican state lawmakers like State Rep. Tony McCombie of Savanna view this either-or option as a mandate disguised as choice.

“That’s a shame, and it wastes an opportunity to move forward where we do have points of agreement for improving...family and sexual health curriculum,” McCombie said. “All or nothing it takes it out of local control, in my opinion.”

Republicans also object to the sexual explicity of some of the learning objectives in the national guidelines.

The most recent version of the National Sex Education Standards were adopted in March 2020. Unlike the previous 2012 standards , which states like Washington and Colorado align with, the latest edition calls for students starting in 6th grade to define the meaning of oral and anal sex, and for students starting in 3rd grade to explain concepts like masturbation.

“We're talking 8- to 10-year-olds and it says they are to describe by that age, by 5th grade...students should be able to explain common human sexual development and roles of hormones such as romantic sexual feelings, masturbation and so forth,” Ralph Rivera of the Christian Pro-Family Alliance said. “You have to describe the role hormones play in the physical, social, cognitive and emotional changes during adolescence, and the potential role of hormone blockers on young people who identify as transgender.”

McCombie said she has already heard from teachers in her district that will feel uncomfortable using some of the standards’ language in their classrooms.

“Many parents don't know what the actual curriculum looks like and trust their school boards, trust their educators and administrators,” McCombie said. “But when this first goes around, the teachers are going to be the ones who are going to have to answer questions when parents are calling.”

Chelsea Diaz of the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union said the national standards were revised following years of research and a desire to make sex education less stigmatizing.

“The Future of Sex Ed. initiative and the experts that contributed and reviewed the standards felt that they needed to be updated based on research and also to make sure that it was inclusive; the language was inclusive, and that it was also trauma-informed as well,” Diaz said.

Proponents support the standards’ commitment to address and explain LGBTQ child development, signs of abusive relationships, the importance of consent, and safe-sex practices. But opponents still object to some of the more graphic content being presented to elementary and middle school students.

“If you think that it is OK for a teacher in a public school to teach...what anal sex, oral sex and dental dams are, then you should vote for this bill,” State Sen. Neil Anderson (R-Rock Island) told his colleagues during Senate debate on the bill last week.

Anderson contended ”anal sex, oral sex and dental dams” would be taught to 4th and 5th graders, but those subjects aren’t introduced until the 6th grade.

“If you think that maybe -- just maybe -- that goes outside of age appropriateness, and that maybe that should be something that if you as a parent decide to teach your kid, by all means do it,” Anderson said “But in the public school setting, outside of anatomy and physiology and basic sex education, this is outrageous.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), who is currently campaigning for governor, went even further in his comments.

“I participate in what I expect to be a prestigious body, and here we are dealing with absolute nonsense of putting perversion into our schools,” Bailey said. “Yeah, that's what it is, it's perversion.”

During the House committee hearing, sex education advocates like Dawn Revine, a Sexuality Education Program Coordinator at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, said offering updated standards won’t result in students becoming more sexually active and won’t be a dramatic change for many Illinois schools.

“Much of what's already being provided across our state is in line with this bill and really just backs up schools in doing what they're already doing really, really well and provide some additional guidance to ensure inclusivity so it doesn't change their core curriculum,” Ravine said. “So, for example, if a school district already has a beautiful fifth grade curriculum...they can still continue to use those materials. It just provides them [with] some additional backup and update.”

However, Nora Gelperin, Director of Sexuality Education and Training at Advocates for Youth — one of the leading groups that helped develop the revised national standards — said in a statement that with the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, no state has yet aligned their state standards with the revised 2020 guidelines.

Aside from Illinois, the New York state legislature has also introduced a proposal this legislative session to align their state sex education standards with the revised national model. But, the New York proposal has been stalled in the Senate Education Committee since March.

Additionally, lawmakers in Congress are also looking to promote sex education content aligned with the National Sex Education Standards. The so-called “Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act” would call for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and U.S. Secretary of Education to award grants to help K-12 and postsecondary schools provide sex education to students.

Sam Spencer, communications director for U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) — one of the co-sponsors of REAHYA — said in a statement that sex education would be defined as curriculm that aligns with the 2020 edition of the National Sex Education Standards.

For Illinois, the standards proposal passed out of the Senate along party lines and may be voted on by the House before session ends on May 31. If passed, the Illinois State Board of Education would have until August 2022 to adopt new state standards.

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