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Mandatory Sex Education Bill Advances In Illinois House

Julia Strehlow of the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center speaks about the REACH Act to members of the Illinois House committee for curriculum and policies in elementary and secondary education.

A bill requiring updated sex education standards in Illinois public schools has advanced out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on School Curriculum and Policies in the Illinois House. The vote fell along party lines.

If the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children's Health Act, or the REACH Act, becomes law, Illinois would join 30 other states already requiring sex ed. The curriculum under the bill would vary depending on grade level.

Advocates say children and young people shouldn't be left to figure out personal health and safety on their own.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Northlake, said many students throughout the state are not getting the education they need on sex ed topics.

"This needs to be a mandate," said Willis. "We want to make sure that what they're getting is medically, scientifically and academically accurate."

Julia Strehlow with the Chicago Children's Advocacy Center said such education needs to start early. According to Strehlow, children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of seven and 13.

"We know that prevention is possible through this kind of education, because it equips both children and their school communities to be able to speak up and stop abuse if it's already started, or stop abuse if it's in kind of the beginning stages," said Strehlow. "Prevention saves all of us time, money and the emotional toll of intervention."

Strehlow said without education from schools, students find out about sex through exposure to inappropriate material on the Internet.

"Young children are ready to learn about their bodies and how to keep themselves safe, and it's an adult's job to guide them in an age-appropriate manner," said Strehlow. "It's not the internet's job."

Strehlow also said the REACH Act is inclusive of groups such as LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities.

"We must have guidance in our law that supports all of these students," said Strehlow.

State Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Villa Park, said the bill would help deal with rising numbers of suicides and mental health crises among young people.

"This really is a bill that is going to be preventative in many ways," said Conroy. "This is something that is about acceptance. This is a bill that's so important to our families and to our children."

Pro-life and anti-LGBTQ+ organizations oppose the bill on the basis of religious beliefs. Ralph Rivera with Illinois Right To Life Action and Pro-Family Alliance says the bill is not age-appropriate and promotes abortion and the LGBT lifestyle.

"Both of these situations are indoctrinating students in the public schools against their beliefs, against their parent's beliefs," said Rivera. "We should be respectful of students and parents who have a different view and don't want their children taught."

But researchers say being LGBTQ+ is not a choice. Willis said the bill does not promote abortion over other options for pregnancy.

Willis said she has been communicating with Rivera about concerns with the bill.

"One of the concerns that he brought up was the impression that this bill is teaching sexual education to kindergarteners," said Willis. "It is not, I cannot stress that enough. It is age-appropriate education about healthy relationships."

Education for students in kindergarten through second grade would focus primarily on personal safety. Topics such as puberty, sexual orientation, and gender identity would be included starting in third grade. From sixth grade onward, consent, sexual harassment, and pregnancy prevention would be among the topics covered.

The decision of how to teach the standards would be left to local school boards. Parents would have the option to opt their students out of sex ed instruction under the legislation.

An amendment to the bill will extend how long schools would have to start teaching the new standards. Willis said the amendment was in response to concerns from the Illinois State Board of Education about having enough time to implement standards and complete rulemaking.

"I want to get this right," said Willis. "I don't want to rush it through. It is truly important to get it where we can all work together on this."

That amendment means the bill will come back to committee at a later date.

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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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