Thursday, May 6, 2021

My comments on tonight's vote on sex ed

more or less; I'll add links later, but you can find my sources pretty easily

 I think it important to note that we are deliberating this question now, in 2021, because a clear Open Meeting Law violation took place last term in the spring of 2019. A quorum of the Teaching, Learning, and Student Supports subcommittee deliberated on a matter under their purview—the health curriculum—outside of a posted public meeting, and the process ended.

We know this, of course, because of the public records of this deliberation.

When a public body violates the Open Meeting Law, as happened last term, and the matter goes to the Attorney General, she can impose a number of penalties, which generally are designed to make up for the lack of public process: committees can be required to revote, or they can release minutes. They can even be fined. 

No such penalties were imposed on Worcester, Mr. Chair, as the matter was never reported to the Attorney General. 

But even if it were, nothing can make up for the consequences of the members of this public body denying students of the Worcester Public Schools two years of comprehensive health education. We do not know, Mr. Chair, how many of our students were harmed by not having what can in fact be life-saving information. 

I don’t want to let this evening pass without noting where the responsibility for this lies.

We cannot make up for that lost time, but we can ensure no more time is lost.

In terms of process, I want to thank you, Mr. Chair, for not letting up on this, as well as Ms. McCullough for ensuring that there was a public process with clear evaluation and parameters with public comment. 

I have noticed that there has been some confusion during, so let me observe: the Committee asked for our staff to conduct a curriculum review. I appreciate the work our health department staff, as well as that of the HOPE Coalition and the Department of Public Health, in a thorough, professional curriculum review as requested.
Both “conflict of interest” and “ethics violations” are legal terms of art, which have specific definitions; the vote this evening is neither.
I’d also note that curricular materials usually are protected by copyright, and thus aren’t available, in my experience, via a public records request. The curriculum we are actually discussing, however, is entirely publicly available. 

Regarding public comment, I do think it incumbent to note that some of what we received, particularly at the last meeting, was no less than hate speech, and in some cases directed at our students. That may be legal in this public forum, but it is unacceptable. It has been also been quite clear how much motivation is based on fear and concern over loss of control rather than care for our students. It was, in many ways, a potent illustration of just why we need the comprehensive curriculum before us this evening. 

All of our students, all of our staff, all of the members of the Worcester community deserve to have their human dignity and bodily integrity valued and respected. 

Our trans students and community members are valued, as they are, for who they are.

All members of the LGBTQIA community deserve respect, justice, and equity. 

All of us here have taken an oath to the Massachusetts Constitution, which lays out in its very first lines a recognition that the purpose of democratic government is “to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquility their natural rights, and the blessings of life.” 

To shirk our work this evening is to shirk our oath of office. 

Yes, Mr. Chair, Massachusetts General Law says parents may choose not to have their children take such coursework as that under discussion. 

However, those under the impression that students who do not receive comprehensive sex education in school will not have any exposure to sex are badly mistaken; they’ll simply be subject to whatever turns up on a Google search.

To the question of whose job this is, allow me to cite two quotations:

Parents/caregivers are the primary sexuality educators of their children. 
School districts and community-based organizations should function 
as partners with parents/caregivers in providing sexuality education. 
Together, these institutions have the responsibility to provide young 
people with honest, age-appropriate sexuality education.


We need to have sex education for children. The ideal is to start from home, with the parents. It is not always possible because there are so many differentsituations in families, and because they do not know how to do it. And so the school makes up for this, because otherwise it will remain a void thatwill then be filled by any ideology.

The first quote, Mr. Chair, is the first principle of the curriculum being considered tonight from the teacher’s manual of Rights, Respect, and Responsibility.

The second, Mr. Chair, is from a translation from an interview in 2019 with Pope Francis,.

It is not a scandal for public schools to teach comprehensive sex education. It is, in fact, a responsibility we have, and it is one that we here in Worcester have been shirking for far too long. Sex education is covered in the Massachusetts state frameworks for health education—long overdue for updating—and are anticipated by the state laws—thus the ability for parents to choose to have their children not participate. The list of which districts have comprehensive sex education, have had comprehensive sex education, and continue to have comprehensive sex education is lengthy, and ironically includes many of the districts from which we had callers over the past weeks. They would deny our students something students in their own communities already have.

It is also not something that can be or should be isolated to high school or even middle school. We received painful personal testimony from callers who noted their own experiences of sexual assault at young ages. One out of every NINE girls and one out of every 53 boys is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. That means on average at least one girl in every one of our classrooms and several boys in every one of our schools have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. 93% of those reporting such abuse know the perpetrator, and in fully of third of reported cases, the perpetrator is a member of the victim’s family. 

Again, Mr. Chair, we as a district have a responsibility to our students; this clearly cannot be left only to family. While sexual assault is never the victim’s fault, having conversations about bodily autonomy as developmentally appropriate make it that much more likely those who need it will get help by the mandated reporters under our employ.

As one of our callers noted last week, an adult deciding that they are uncomfortable with something does not make it developmentally inappropriate. Child development is a field of study; we educate children in line with that, not in line with various degrees of adult discomfort. Best practice on teaching children about health in all fields is that one does so gradually and consistently over time starting, yes, when they are young. 

And this remains true, Mr. Chair, regardless of the culture or even the religion of the families. We could do a world tour and find the need for sex ed in any country that does not have it. We could easily start with my own cultural heritage, where a country run as very close to a theocracy for much of a century is still uncovering decades of sex abuse in religious schools, not to mention the horrific legacy of the Magdalene laundries. Don’t tell a great-granddaughter of Ireland that religion and culture should be allowed to block comprehensive sex education. 

We are instructed, after all, to remove the log from our own eye before attempted to remove the speck of sawdust in another’s.

Likewise, a parent saying that they could never teach something to their child does not mean that no one ever should. Many could never teach basic principles of mathematics or of science; students still need to know them. I know we have many gifted health teachers in the Worcester Public Schools. 

I will also echo that we have at least a few that have no business teaching health, which is why we must have a single curriculum that is implemented with strict fidelity. We would not have someone who insisted the Earth is flat teaching geography; we must not have health educators that deny basic scientific principles of the field. 

And make no mistake: this is a scientific field of study. It is thus infuriating, Mr. Chair, to hear the vast array of misinformation and outright lies that have been conveyed in this discussion, including by leadership that should know better, and which has a responsibility to tell the truth to people under their care. It is deeply troubling to me how much of the testimony comes from fear and a perceived loss of control. Yet we are told that it is the truth that sets us free.

The reason that we have such solid research on the need for comprehensive sex education is that the U.S. federal government ran the equivalent of a large scale experiment from 1998 to 2016 on the youth of the country by funding abstinence only until marriage education under Title V, Section 510. Review after review after review (compiled by both Mathematica and by Guttmacher) of such programs in the states that accepted the funding over those years came to the same conclusion: there was no evidence that such programs increased the rates of sexual abstinence, and students had similar numbers of partners and rates of unprotected sex as students without any access to any sort of sex ed at all. 

The only positive--and I meant that in a statistical sense--correlation from a 2019 review in Reuters was that students in such programs in politically conservative districts had a teen birth rate that went up. 

Those involved in studies of children’s health concluded that such programs were unethical because of the actual outcomes of the programs. To persist to giving incomplete information when it has been shown to do actual harm is unethical. 

So to those who asked why it was we have the rates we do of teen pregnancy in the country, there’s your answer. 

To those who have raised the issue of birth rates in other cities with comprehensive sex education: the test is impact. Those cities had rates significantly higher than ours to begin with; it is, at least in part, their use of a comprehensive sex education curriculum that pushed those rates down. Facile comparisons that simply note which city is higher than which without accounting for those other factors tell us little. 

As a number of the callers endorsing such programs also, a review of their associated sites show,  discourage COVID restrictions, question vaccinations for COVID for young people, and take other perspectives contrary to public health, I would suggest we should not take their advice on public health matters.

Meanwhile, as has been widely noted, and is easily Googleable, and has been demonstrated over and again by actual peer reviewed scientific research conducted by legitimate research organizations, comprehensive sex education, like the program before us tonight, is actually effective. We have known this for decades at this point. It is past time we acted on it.

In my consideration of this important matter, Mr. Chair, I have continued to come back to an image from my own high school years. Created by ACT-UP New York, it was three stark lines printed under a pink triangle.




Because of the activism of ACT-UP and others, as well as the work of researchers, the death sentence at that time due to AIDS is no longer the fate of those who are HIV positive who have access to treatment.

 But the silence that meant death, and the fear and in some cases the bigotry motivating that silence remains with us still. To remain silent when we have the rates of STDs among our students that we do—to remain silent when we know the huge rates of suicide and other harms to trans youth when they are not supported by family or community—to remain silent when our children lack for basic education that would give them, we know, healthier and happier lives—to remain silent under such circumstances is, Mr. Chair, death.

I will support the recommendations of the subcommittee as amended. 

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