SPRINGFIELD – An Illinois House committee advanced a bill Wednesday, March 17 that would mandate all public school districts in the state provide a comprehensive, age-appropriate curriculum on sex education, sexual abuse awareness and healthy relationships for all grades, K-12.
Illinois currently has a law that leaves the option of teaching sex education up to the discretion of local school districts, but House Bill 1736, dubbed the Responsible Education for Adolescents and Children, or REACH Act, would make it mandatory.
“This whole idea came about because students were reaching out and asking for this in their curriculum,” Rep. Kathleen Willis, D-Addison, the bill’s chief sponsor, said during a virtual hearing. “There are many schools that do not have this, and that is one of the most important things and one of the reasons I jumped on board.”
Willis said the bill calls for developing three curriculums. For students in kindergarten through 2nd grade, it would focus on personal safety, identifying trusted adults and respecting others. For grades 3-5, it would focus on personal safety and healthy relationships, bullying prevention, harassment, abuse, anatomy, puberty, hygiene, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expressions.
In grades 6-12, the curriculum would include instruction in the concepts of consent, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, the benefits of abstinence, pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted infection prevention.
The bill calls for the Illinois State Board of Education to develop educational standards for each grade level, but it would allow local districts to develop their own curricula. The current version of the bill calls for those to be in place no later than July 1, 2022, but Willis said she plans to propose further amendments that would allow ISBE more time to develop the standards.
The bill would also allow parents to opt out of allowing their children to receive the instruction.
Julia Strehlow, a licensed social worker with the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, an agency that responds to reports of child sexual abuse from child welfare and law enforcement officials, said she believes it’s important to begin educating children about sexuality and abuse in early grades.
Nationally, she said, the median age of child sex abuse victims is 9, and in the Chicago center where she works, the median age is 8.
“Currently, there’s no mandate to educate children about their bodies or who to talk to about unsafe touches before the age of 8, or really actually at any age in terms of mandates,” Strehlow said. “We also know that child sexual abuse has a significant lasting impact on the mental health and overall well-being of the child victim in their family costing close to $300,000 per individual throughout their lifetime. So we must start early to stop it.”
Portions of the bill, however, are drawing strong opposition from anti-abortion groups who argue that the upper grade-level curriculum amounts to promoting abortion.
According to the bill, the grades 6-12 curriculum would have to include “unbiased information and non-stigmatizing information about the options regarding pregnancy, including parenting, adoption, and abortion.”
It also calls for instruction in “Diverse sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions, including affirmative representation and health-positive instruction.”
“So both of these situations are indoctrinating our students in the public schools, against their beliefs against their parents’ beliefs,” said Ralph Rivera, a lobbyist for Illinois Right to Life Action and the Pro Family Alliance. “And that’s very important because that’s where we come from. This is a religious belief for us.”
Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville, the ranking Republican on the committee, opposed the bill, arguing that imposing such a mandate on schools should require a longer discussion.
“This is a really drastic departure from our current sex education requirements,” she said. “The fact that we’re requiring this of every school, certainly the different curriculum that will be included is different. And I think that it deserves a much longer and more in depth hearing than what we’ve been able to have today.”
The committee voted 14-7 to advance the bill to the full House, even though Willis said it will need to return to the committee in the weeks to come to consider further amendments that have not yet been drafted.