Senate To Vote On Bill That Would Mandate How Local School Districts Teach Sex

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BOSTON — With a Senate vote looming Thursday on a controversial sex education bill, lawmakers have offered a flurry of amendments — most notably Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), submitted an “opt-in” measure, making the courses an elective and meaning that children can’t participate in the coursework without parental approval.

The Senate had previously passed a near-identical form of the legislation 32-6 in November 2015, but the House did not take up the bill prior to the end of the legislative session, effectively scuttling the measure. The proposal has drawn outrage from conservative groups such as the Massachusetts Family Institute for a variety of reasons, including elements of the proposed curriculum claiming that education on matters such as anal sex are “age-appropriate” for 12-year-olds.

Tarr in 2015 offered an identical opt-in amendment which failed to garner support in the Democrat-dominated Senate.

At the bill’s hearing in April before the Joint Committee on Education, state Representative Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) noted that her local school district featured an opt-in stipulation when it first began teaching sex education in 1993 but claimed the provision “became very burdensome” and was later dropped.

State Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) chided the bill’s critics during the hearing, including Beckwith, over their concerns with a section of the curriculum that teaches students how to use jerry-rig various everydray household items to be used as barriers to prevent passing along sexually transmitted diseases.

“It does not mean bringing a roll of Saran Wrap to school, although some folks do want to learn about barriers and dental dams,” Cyr said at the time. “This really is about providing information about abstinence and about delaying sexual activity and encouraging healthy relationships.”

The proposal later garnered a “favorable review” from the committee. That determination, along with a final review from the Ways and Means Committee and the attachment of a separate bill that adds a mental health section to the sex education curriculum, paved the way for Thursday’s scheduled Senate vote.

“The mental health promotion component may provide supplemental instruction in areas including, but not limited to, mental health, mental illness, teenage brain development, stress management, physical health, violence prevention, ecological and community health and overcoming mental illness stigma,” the add-on bill states.

Cyr has offered seven amendments, including one calling for replacing language regarding “the importance of effectively using” contraceptives with the words “how to effectively use” said contraceptives. Cyr also proposed adding language regarding abortion options to a section of the bill dealing with various aspects of sex education.

An amendment offered by state Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) would require school districts to give students “opportunities to analyze societal and media messages” regarding sexual matters.

Additional amendments offered by Tarr include a stipulation mandating that school districts provide parents and guardians with at least a 30-day advance notice prior to the start of sex education instruction and that a portion of the curriculum “include teaching considerations relevant to becoming a parent.”

When the Senate last voted on an earlier iteration of the bill in 2015, Tarr described the climate inside the chamber at one point as “rancorous.”

During debate on his opt-in amendment, state Senator Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) spoke in support. At one point during his remarks Fattman mentioned earlier comments made by state Senator Thomas McGee (D-Lynn), who would later vote against Tarr’s opt-in amendment, regarding a different bill promoting youth physical education.

“Earlier tonight I was very encouraged when the gentleman from Lynn made the comment that parents should be asked what they want for their children,” Fattman said. “I couldn’t agree more. This amendment does exactly that. It allows parents to opt in when dealing with sensitive information.” 

State Senator Harriett Chandler (D-Worcester) spoke in opposition, describing an opt-in provision as “regressive.”

“It would strike at the very core of what we’re trying to do with this bill,” she said. “The bill before us doesn’t require that schools teach sex education, only that if they do it be medically accurate.

“This amendment would prevent a significant number of children from receiving important information that will keep them safe.”

Chandler also claimed that an opt-in provision would create “great uncertainty” for school districts.

“How will they budget for classes if they don’t know how many students will sign up?” she asked at one point.

State Senator Sal DiDomenico (D-Boston) argued that since subjects like math, science, and English do not have “opt-in” requirements, sex education shouldn’t either.

“When you opt in for something so important you minimize the importance of what we’re doing,” DiDomenico said. “This amendment would gut this bill.”

Tarr’s opt-in amendment failed 9-29.

Prior to the bill’s final vote, state Senator Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth) offered a closing argument and questioned what the bill considers to be age-appropriate material. 

“I know you think I’m crazy but if you see some of the material that is age appropriate right now for seventh graders, some people say I should have read some of it to the body, but I wouldn’t do that,” he said at the time. “I think we wouldn’t be comfortable with our 12-year-old being exposed to this by someone else.

“I am not naive but there are clearly some things that make me uncomfortable and we need to be mindful of what is considered age appropriate.” 

The Senate convenes Thursday at 11 a.m..