'Our children need this information': State adopts standards for sex education in public schools

Sex and health education have been taught in Illinois schools for decades, but a new law Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed last summer adopts National Sex Education Standards that include guidelines for all grade levels.

Sex education is not required in Illinois schools. In schools that do offer it, parents who have concerns about the comprehensive sex education curriculum, which includes information on gender identity, can opt out for their children.

Districts can choose their own curriculum for sex education programs, but the curriculum must align with the NSES guidelines.

Kim Cook, a St. Charles resident who is a former elementary school nurse and a certified health education specialist, is the founder of Sex Education Alliance, an organization composed of independent sex education professionals who work to make sex education more accessible.

Cook said adopting the NSES guidelines is “long overdue” in Illinois, as many children learn about sex from their peers.

“Despite what some politicians say, the vast majority of parents would like sex education to be taught in school,” Cook wrote in an email. “Many parents are uncomfortable talking to their kids about this part of the human experience. By teaching sex ed in school, it opens up the lines of communication between parent and child.

“The average age for accessing porn on the home computer is age 11. If parents fear schools are misinforming kids, think again. It's happening under a parent's unknowing eye.”

State Rep. Camille Lilly, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored Senate Bill 818. She said she wanted Illinois to have a universal standard for what is being taught in sex education classes throughout the state.

“The standards [for sex education] are now the same as national standards,” she said. “Districts [that offer comprehensive sex education] have to teach the same things, but they can be taught in different ways.”

The NSES personal health and safety education guidelines for elementary schoolchildren focus on bullying, good touch versus bad touch, health, safety, hygiene, consent, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection prevention.

Liam Chan Hodges, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said an important goal of the new personal health and safety education is to help prevent child abuse.

“In elementary school, the standards set a foundation for safety by teaching about consent, boundaries and healthy relationships,” Chan Hodges wrote in an email. “Children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13. The median age for reported abuse is 9 years old nationally.

“Teaching these topics to students before the age of 9 helps prevent sexual violence and also helps districts comply with Erin's Law, which requires Illinois public schools to provide child sexual abuse prevention education.”

According to NSES guidelines, in addition to learning about healthy relationships and bullying, children in grades K-2 also will learn medically accurate names for body parts, including genitals; definitions of gender, gender identity and gender-role stereotypes; reproduction; and situations that may be uncomfortable or dangerous.

“Kindergartners are already asking questions about what they see in the media, about what they experience in their homes,” Lilly said. “So, do we ignore those questions? In order for kids to deal with what's in front of them in society, it's important to equip them with information that allows them to make informed decisions.

“Young people are being exposed to these issues earlier in life. Our children need this information.”

What children learn

Children in grades 3-5 will learn about the physical, social and emotional changes that occur during puberty and adolescence and how puberty can vary; sexual development and the role of hormones; differences between cisgender, transgender, gender nonbinary, gender expansive and gender identity; sexual intercourse and human reproduction; STDs, including HIV; and more.

Chan Hodges said the middle school standards address dating violence prevention, while the high school standards involve skills and tools for navigating relationships, including healthy sexual relationships.

“High schoolers are empowered by the knowledge they gain about their own bodies and are better able to make the right choices for themselves about relationships, pregnancy and sexual health than if they had not had access to this education and instruction,” he said. ”Research demonstrates that comprehensive personal health and safety instruction for students in all grades promotes self-confidence and prevents health problems, unintended pregnancy and many forms of abuse and violence.”

Under the NSES, middle schoolers will learn about human reproductive systems, including the external and internal body parts and their functions; the definition of sexual orientation and ways to communicate respectfully with and about people of all sexual orientations; definitions of vaginal, oral and anal sex; short- and long-term contraception options that are safe and effective and how to access them; STDs, including HIV, how common they are, and how they are and are not transmitted; and the signs of pregnancy and pregnancy options, including parenting, abortion and adoption.

By the end of high school, students should be able to describe the human sexual response cycle, including the role of hormones and pleasure; explain sex trafficking, including recruitment tactics that sex traffickers use to exploit vulnerabilities and recruit youth; describe symptoms of STDs; compare and contrast contraceptive and disease prevention methods; and analyze how peers, family, media, society and culture can influence attitudes and beliefs about interpersonal and sexual violence.

Surveying districts

ISBE is required to survey districts every summer about whether or not they offered programs that align with the new standards during the previous school year, as well as how many students received the instruction and the number of students who opted out from receiving it.

The first sex education survey was sent out in June regarding what was taught during the 2021-22 school year. The results of that survey will be shared with the Illinois General Assembly this month, but ISBE won't know which districts, or how many, will elect to offer the new comprehensive sex education program in the 2022-23 school year until next summer, Chan Hodges said.

As of now, he said, ISBE does not know how many districts are planning to offer a comprehensive sex education program that follows the NSES guidelines for the coming school year.

For districts that do teach comprehensive sex education, ISBE has provided free teaching resources based on the NSES guidelines that teachers can use to create lesson plans.

Districts will be required to publicly share the instructional materials used in the comprehensive personal health and safety education and the comprehensive sexual health education. The schools also must post on their websites the curriculum that will be taught so parents and the community can review the information.

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