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Sex Education Standard Update Bill Advances Out Of State Senate Along Party Lines

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State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, voices his opposition to the Keeping Youth Safe and Healthy Act in the Senate Thursday. All Republicans in the Senate voted against the bill.

A bill updating Illinois sex education standards passed through the Illinois Senate on Thursday after a contentious debate lasting close to an hour.

The bill would require the Illinois State Board of Education to update learning standards for personal health and safety education for younger students and sexual health education for students from sixth grade onward.

Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, the sponsor of the bill, said young people need medically accurate information taught to them in a safe and inclusive environment.

"In recent years, the news has been filled with reporting on child sex abuse scandals, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault on college campuses, and bullying of LGBTQ students and people of color," said Villivalam. "Our youth see this coverage."

Villivalam emphasized the difference in the standards between grade levels.

"Comprehensive personal health and safety education and sex health education will help develop healthy relationships, prevent abuse, sexual violence and interpersonal violence and empower students to be able to make healthy and safe decisions," said Villivalam. "At the end of the day, this is about keeping our youth safe and healthy."

In the Peoria area, Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria voted in favor of the bill. Sen. Sally Turner, R-Beason, and Sen. Win Stoller, R-Peoria, voted against the bill. In Bloomington-Normal, Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, both voted against the bill.

Republican opposition

Republicans contended the bill takes away choice from school districts, and that the standards are not age-appropriate.

"Here we are dealing with absolute nonsense of putting perversion into our schools," said Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who is currently running for governor of Illinois. "Teachers who are learning to teach our kids proper education have absolutely no reason in teaching this kind of stuff."

Bailey advocated for "(making) it easier for the family unit to stay together," referring to the provisions of the bill as "junk" and "nonsense."

Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, objected to Bailey's characterization of the bill as "perversion."

"This is the Senate for the state of Illinois," said Simmons. "I expect a certain degree of decorum and respect that we all would afford each other."

Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Moline, said the legislation would lead to fourth and fifth graders being taught about anal sex, oral sex, and dental dams, even though the bill does not provide for sex education until sixth grade.

"Maybe that should be something that if you as a parent decide to teach your kid, by all means do it," said Anderson. "But in the public school setting ... this is outrageous."

Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Vandalia, said the bill was extreme, in addition to being all-or-nothing.

"You're going to have folks in certain districts that may say, 'We don't want this curriculum,' or you're going to have parents who are going to say we're going to opt our children out of this curriculum," said Plummer. "Instead of having reasonable curriculum that will address some of the very legitimate concerns have been expressed, you're going to have a significant number of children in Illinois that are getting no education."

Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said the groups responsible for putting the updated standards into legislation did not reflect people on either side of the aisle.

"We feel that the school should have more of an option to decide what they're going to teach," said Rezin. "I think that parents and families should have the ability also to decide what is told to their child and what is not in school."

The bill would allow parents and guardians to opt their students out of instruction of sex education, as is currently the case in Illinois.

Sen. Villivalam said schools would retain local control through the selection of instructional materials and curriculum. Earlier versions of the bill would have required public schools to teach the standards the bill puts into place, but that provision was removed from the version of the bill that passed.

"I guess local control matters until it doesn't," said Villivalam.

Sen. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, noted that the bill removes the emphasis on teaching abstinence from sex education standards. Current standards require emphasis "that abstinence from sexual intercourse is a responsible and positive decision and is the only protection that is 100% effective against unwanted teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases," and AIDS. That emphasis has been one of many aspects of the current standards that advocates have viewed as outdated.

Bryant took issue with the nature of the new standards.

"I think that the organizations that have put this together do not represent any of our children in an age-appropriate way," said Bryant.

The bill's supporters

Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, who was a sexual health educator before joining the General Assembly, said the Republican talking points on the Senate floor were "Trumpian."

"What we're trying to do is educate children about their bodies, but also educate them about the predators that actually exist in this world," said Villanueva. "You can keep your perversion, and we'll push for actual education of our students."

Villanueva also noted the bill would not give high schoolers the same education as a second grader, responding to the Republican concerns about age-appropriateness.

"They don't even get the same type of mathematical education," said Villanueva.

Organizations in support of the bill include the LGBTQ organization Equality Illinois, ACLU of Illinois and Planned Parenthood Illinois Action.

"The Illinois Senate (has) moved the state one step closer to improving the health and education of all public and charter school students statewide," said Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Illinois Action, in a press release.

Sen. Doris Turner, D-Carlinville, said she found conversations about family and family structure "very interesting."

"I think that we should all be reminded that families come in very different sizes and boxes," said Turner. "No one has the right to define what a family is and and what a family should consist of."

Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, D-Chicago, a chief co-sponsor of the measure, said the information in the bill would be life saving.

"If we do not address in clear terms and equip children with the appropriate vocabulary and the ability to speak on their behalf, then we are only aiding and abetting people being mistreated, harmed and in the worst situations sexually abused and assaulted," said Pacione-Zayas.

Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, said the mandate would arm students with knowledge. She opposed the Republican characterization of the bill as an unfunded mandate.

"Not everybody grows up in a family where these matters are discussed at home," said Holmes. "Children need to be aware of what's going on so they can help protect themselves to understand what the world is."

The final bill, which supporters refer to as the Keeping Youth Safe and Healthy Act, was a combination of two earlier bills in the current General Assembly: the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children’s Health Act, also known as the REACH Act, and the Illinois Healthy Youth Act.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gov. JB Pritzker said while one bill created a mandate, another created a mandate with an opt-out provision; in actuality, both bills maintained the opt-out option. He said ultimately, the latter won out when the bills were combined.

"That's something the General Assembly has talked with the advocates about, that's something that the Governor's Office has talked to the General Assembly and the advocates about," said Pritzker. "That's where it landed."

The bill passed 37-18 in the Senate. It now moves to the House.

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Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.
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