Overhauling Sex Education in Illinois

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Abstinence-only and heteronormative sexual health education could soon be a thing of the past for public schools for Illinois. 

In February, Representative Kathleen Willis introduced a bill known as the The Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children’s Health (REACH) Act which would require Illinois public schools to provide age-appropriate inclusive and comprehensive personal health and safety education from grades K-12.

The bill is a copy of a Senate bill introduced last year by Illinois Senator Ram Villivalam which failed to advance due to COVID-19. This year, REACH is finding more success. In March, the House bill advanced out of the Rules Committee and awaits a vote on the House floor.

If passed, the legislation will make Illinois the thirtieth state to mandate sex education. Currently, Illinois law leaves the option of teaching sex education at the discretion of the school district. 

The bill would have the Illinois State Board of Education develop education standards for every grade level, but it still would permit districts to develop their own curriculum. Regardless, the curriculum must follow that which is laid out in the REACH Act and be in place for school districts no later than July 1, 2022. Parents would have the option to remove their children from the curriculum if chosen. 

Existing Sex Ed Doesn’t Reflect Students Needs

The REACH Act needed to reflect what Illinois youth truly need, and the bill was developed based on input from youth, educators, social workers, sexual and interpersonal violence prevention experts, health care providers and advocates. Multiple youth groups were contacted for the bill and asked what they are not getting from the current sexual health education. Repeatedly students said they don’t see themselves represented in the curriculum and that their education has been heteronormative. 

Brigid Leahy, Senior Director of Public Policy at Planned Parenthood Illinois Action emphasized that many student identities are left out of mainstream sex education in Illinois middle and high schools. Disabled students, queer students, students who are parents and students who are already having sex don’t seem themselves in their curriculum. 

“At the fundamental level, it has been talking to youth and finding out what they need,” Leahy said. “Inclusivity is just as important as making sure students get information, we want them to feel included and like the curriculum is relevant to them.” 

One of the main differences between current Illinois law and the REACH Act is acknowledging that students will have sex and have questions about their bodies, sexuality and more but now, there will be inclusive resources conducive to intersectional learning to help them make informed decisions

“It’s age-appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive,” Leahy said. “So many young people are not getting what they need. Inclusivity has been important from day one working on this bill because of the concerns of outdated language in the current law that requires the teaching of respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.”

Age-Appropriate Curriculum Teaches Consent

Leahy also explained that the REACH Act will be a “complete rewrite” of the current law. The terms “personal health” and “safety education” are used in place of sex education to teach children of all age’s issues such as consent, safety and respect. By using these terms, the concept of “sex education” can be broadened to include more educational material that isn’t only focoused on sex, but everything that enompcasses maturity, responsiblity and communication. 

The program would be phased in as a multi-year approach, allowing school districts to figure out what works best for them. It is broken up into three categories of curriculum based on age group: Grades K-2, Grades 3-5 and Grades 6-12. 

Grades K-2 would focus on issues such as personal safety, identifying trusted adults and respecting others. Grades 3-5 shifts into personal safety and healthy relationships, bullying prevention, harassment, abuse, anatomy, puberty, hygiene, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. 

Grades 6-12 are usually when we see sexual health education introduced but with the REACH Act, sexual health education would only be the beginning of the overarching conversation. It would continue to cover healthy relationships and introduce consent, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, benefits of abstinence, pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted infection prevention. 

Michael Morgan, Black Organizing Program Manager for Planned Parenthood Illinois Action, spoke about the role of consent in the REACH Act and how it may help improve the number of sexual assault cases. 

“Consent isn’t something that we teach young people in an academic setting,” Morgan said. “If we are having those conversations in the K-4 space, arguably the most developmental years, we will obviously see a drop-off in some of the sexual assault cases.” 

Passing the REACH Act in 2021

Senator Villivalam is championing this bill in the Senate because he believes that the current Illinois law puts students at risk because it lacks the guidance for understanding and developing healthy relationships. 

“The [REACH Act] is important for early introduction of basic concepts like mutual respect and setting personal boundaries so that children understand the fundamentals of healthy relationships by the time they reach the age when they need to develop skills for dealing with issues like dating, consent, harassment or interpersonal violence,” Villivalam said. “The REACH Act does this in an inclusive way that addresses the needs and experiences of LGBTQIA youth.”Planned Parenthood Illinois Action has a petition online you can sign as well as a “Share Your Story” page where you can share your personal experience with sexual health education and what you think needs to change. Your story may appear on Planned Parenthood’s website or social media channels so refrain from using identifying information about individuals.

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Sam Stroozas is journalism graduate student at Northwestern University and writes about gender and sexual health issues. Follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.