Most students in Illinois public schools already are learning about the facts of life, but some legislators say lessons vary widely and are, in some cases, erroneous.
A proposal in the General Assembly aims to bring uniformity to sex education across the state.
House Bill 3027, Senate Amendment 1, would require existing courses in grades six through 12 to include instruction on both abstinence and contraception. It also defines what materials and curricula are acceptable.
While supporters of the bill say the amendment ensures students are learning all methods for preventing sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, some say the legislation is a state mandate that weakens the message of abstinence.
The measure passed the Senate in a 30-28 vote, with one member voting present last May. It was placed on the House calendar for possible consideration this spring.
Rep. Camille Lilly, a Chicago Democrat sponsoring the amendment, said any school district can select a curriculum that meets the needs of its community, as long as it is supported by recognized research and suitable for a particular age group.
Schools also can opt out, and parents can remove children from classes.
"This legislation is already on the books, but what we thought was important was to do more uniformity so we know what is being taught across the state," Lilly said. "We want to make it clear to those who are providing information that it needs to be medically accurate, age appropriate and complete."
For example, Lilly said, some students are given false statistics on the efficacy of birth control methods.
"We are teaching our youth things we shouldn't be teaching them," Lilly said.
Lilly added that the bill would not make sex education mandatory for schools or districts that do not already teach the topic.
Currently, sex education is not required in Illinois. But school districts that include sex education must teach abstinence. Individual school boards can decide to include lessons on birth control and contraception.
Scott Phelps, executive director of the Abstinence and Marriage Education Partnership, a Mount Prospect-based organization that provides abstinence training and resources for schools and other groups, says references to abstinence until marriage have been removed from the amendment.
"It is significant because that is an objective standard that is measurable and factual," Phelps said. "When you delete the marriage standard, abstinence can mean anything you want it to mean."
Supporters, however, point out that schools will continue to emphasize that abstinence is the "ensured method of avoiding unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS" and affirms the decision to be abstinent.
"We want to provide information on all types of birth control so that young people can make the best decisions," said Khadine Bennett, an attorney for the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union. "This bill is not a major overhaul, these are minor tweaks."
But state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, said while he supports sex education, he opposes the new law as it would take decision-making power away from local school boards.
"Usurping the local control was a central concern for me," Murphy said. "What one community thinks is age appropriate, another may not. That's a decision that is best left up to local school boards, rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate handed down from Springfield."
Local schools and districts say the changes will have little effect on what they are already teaching.
A 2008 survey published in the journal, Obstetrics and Gynecology, found two-thirds of public schools in Illinois provide comprehensive sex education, which is defined as covering the topics of abstinence until marriage, HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and contraception. The study found that 93 percent of Illinois schools offered sex education.
At Barrington High School, sophomores choose either a semester of health or physical education. In health, students are taught about abstinence and forms of contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, said Babbi Barreiro, chair of the school's life skills department.
"We tell them that abstinence is the only ensured way of not getting pregnant," Barreiro said. "We also teach them that contraception and birth control are other ways, but they're not foolproof. We want students to be as educated as they can."
The teaching principles at Barrington are the same used at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, said Jovan Lazarevic, the school's vice principal.
"The new Senate amendment won't change anything for us," Lazarevic said. "We have always stressed abstinence and talked about contraception. We use national data and statistics from the CDC to show students the viability of contraception."
Meanwhile, middle school students across Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 are taught an abstinence-based curriculum, said Joe Benoit, a health teacher at Dundee Middle School.
"We will explain what the form of contraception is and how it works," Benoit said. "There are no diagrams or anything like that. Then we'll direct students back to abstinence being the only 100 percent reliable protection."
In five years, Benoit said, he has not received any parental backlash.
Conversely, educators in DuPage High School District 88 continually work to improve the curriculum, said Michael Hausmann, physical education chairman at Willowbrook High School.
"The reality is that kids are sexually active even after being taught as freshmen about abstinence, and they are not getting information from home or church or wherever they would normally get it," Hausmann said. "I don't think (teaching about contraception) is encouraging it. We are still teaching that abstinence is the only way to be completely safe. But I don't think it is smart that kids don't have access to information when it pertains to contraceptives."
Reform: Lawmaker says proposal makes sex ed a 'one-size-fits-all' mandate