Sexual health education could soon be mandatory in Illinois public schools under reintroduced legislation from Democrats in the General Assembly.
If passed, the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children's Health Act, or the REACH Act, would bring the state in line with 30 others that already require sex ed.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) is a sponsor of the bill. He said a proliferation of reporting on child sex abuse, sexual harassment, and bullying of people of color and LGBTQ+ people makes the legislation necessary for Illinois children.
"I view it as it's an overburden not to do this, because we will end up in a situation where we have kids being taught the wrong thing or seeing something on the news and taking that and making an assumption," said Villivalam. "Now more than ever, they need medically and factually accurate information, as well as a safe environment to develop the skills they need to navigate our modern world."
The concepts taught would vary between grade levels. For example, according to a press release, standards for kindergarten through second grade would include personal safety and respecting others, while standards from third grade to fifth grade would add a focus on topics such as bullying, puberty, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and body image.
Deonn Strathman is director of community engagement for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. She said young people need tools to make healthy choices and advocate for themselves.
"Sexual education is for everyone, and quality education celebrates diversity, it does not alienate," said Strathman. "Inclusion is teaching about and validating different bodies, genders and sexual orientations."
Myles Brady Davis, communications director for LGBTQ+ organization Equality Illinois, says in their experience, a lack of inclusive sex ed content in classrooms has meant LGBTQ+ youth have had to teach each other about those relationships. They say inclusive education could help fight the systemic erasure of LGBTQ+ people.
"We must ensure that all young people are equipped with information that can protect them and teach them about ways to stay healthy," said Davis. "Public schools are the best opportunity for students to access inclusive, medically accurate, age-appropriate personal health and safety education."
Villivalam introduced the bill in last year's General Assembly. That version failed to make it out of committee before the end of session last month.
Brigid Leahy, the director of legislation with Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said the bill's delay due to COVID-19 offered an opportunity to work with stakeholders, such as the state board of education, on improving the bill before its reintroduction.
"We've streamlined the standards that we put into the bill, and also really aligned them to the national standards from from health educators," said Mike Ziri, Equality Illinois' director of public policy. "I think it's made for a much stronger initiative."
The decision of how to teach the standards included in the bill would be left to local school boards. Schools will have a year to implement standards for sixth grade through 12th grade, and two years to put them in place for elementary schools.
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