BOSTON — For supporters of a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum who have never found a receptive audience in the Massachusetts House, maybe the fourth time will be the charm.
Before advancing student nutrition and gender-neutral records bills, the state Senate on Thursday approved legislation requiring school districts that offer sex education to deploy medically accurate, age-appropriate programs.
Similar versions of the sex education bill cleared the Senate in 2015, 2017 and 2020, but never gained traction in the House. Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers, but on this particular issue party leaders have not found any common ground.
Sen. Sal DiDomenico, the bill’s lead sponsor, said on the chamber floor that the vote would be the fourth time it cleared the Senate since supporters first filed it a decade ago.
“Every school year that goes by where transgender youth do not see themselves reflected in their curriculum, we are failing. Every year that any cohort of seniors goes off to college without having received vital lessons on consent, respect and bodily autonomy, we are failing,” DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, said.
“Enough is enough,” he added. “It is time for us to pass this bill and sign it into the law.”
Senators voted 38-1 in favor of the bill, the widest margin in the four passes so far. Republican Sen. Ryan Fattman of Sutton cast the lone vote against the bill.
Thursday’s session did not feature the same pitched debate that the bill, which supporters dub the Healthy Youth Act, drew in the past. In 2017, some senators unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would have required parents to opt in for their children to receive sex education, prompting Sen. Jamie Eldridge to tweet that Republicans “would rather put their heads in the sand than accept young people engage in sexual activity.”
House leaders have not indicated whether they plan to bring the bill forward for a debate and a vote this session, which is the first with Speaker Ronald Mariano — a former teacher — wielding the gavel.
In July 2018, lead House sponsor Rep. James O’Day said he was still working to convince fellow representatives that the comprehensive sex education legislation was not designed to encourage sexual activity among youth.
“There are some of my colleagues who are still skittish about this issue,” O’Day said at the time. “It blows my mind. But it is what it is.”
Seventy representatives and 24 senators co-sponsored the bill before its passage in the Senate.
The legislation does not mandate comprehensive sex education in all districts but requires any school that offers the topic to use a curriculum featuring medically accurate, research-backed information, discussions of consent, and LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health materials. Parents could opt their children out of the lessons.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would need to update the state’s Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework every 10 years to comply with the new standards outlined in the bill. Districts could meet the requirements they face by ensuring their curriculum falls within that state-designed framework.
DiDomenico said the latest version of the bill now features language that would ensure any discussion of consent, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression uses terminology aligned with the LGBTQ Youth Commission’s recommendations.
The proposal drew the attention of the Boston Globe’s editorial board, which noted in an opinion piece published Thursday morning that the state has not updated its health curriculum framework since 1999.
“For years, too many grown-ups on Beacon Hill have heard the words ‘sex education’ and headed for the exits as if it were a fire drill,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “The Puritans who once landed on these shores may be long gone, but political squeamishness over the ‘s-word’ lingers on.”
By a unanimous vote, senators on Thursday also approved legislation that would allow Massachusetts residents to select a nonbinary “X” option as their gender on some official documents.
People over the age of 18 or parents of minors could request to change the gender on a birth record to “X” as well as male or female, and the state Registry of Motor Vehicles would by law be required to offer a nonbinary “X” choice. The RMV has been providing that option since 2019, the year that the Senate passed a similar bill.
Under a Sen. Jo Comerford amendment the Senate adopted, residents would have three years to change their legal name after they seek a nonbinary marker on their birth certificate.
Fourteen other states allow “X” as a gender on birth certificates, Comerford said.
The third bill the Senate approved Thursday requires schools where most students hail from low-income families to enroll in a federal program providing free breakfast and lunch to all students. It also bans districts from punishing students with meal debts.
Sen. Cynthia Creem cited a 2018 Massachusetts Law Reform Institute report that found many Massachusetts school districts “targeted indebted students with stigmatizing practices” such as replacing a child’s hot lunch with a lesser option or withholding report cards.
“That should never happen,” Creem, a Newton Democrat, said. “It’s time to bring an end to these unconscionable methods of shaming children whose families cannot afford school meals. Children should not be hungry in Massachusetts, and they should not be penalized for their family’s poverty.”
The House approved its version of the student nutrition bill in July, and it’s possible that branch leaders might agree on a single bill before the Legislature takes its next break, just before Thanksgiving.
Before senators passed the bill with an unrecorded voice vote, DiDomenico warned that Massachusetts has “many, many communities” where “our children are not a priority.”
“We don’t want to have a wide brush over the entire state, but there are pockets of this state where our children are being treated unfairly. When you think about that, it’s startling,” he said. “We have invested a tremendous amount of money in the Student Opportunity Act. We have invested tremendous money on infrastructure, on putting our school districts first. We can have the best schools, the best technology, the best teachers, but if our kids come to school hungry, they’re not ready to learn.”