SPRINGFIELD — Thirty states require sex education in public schools. Illinois is not one of them.
State Sen. Ram Villivalam and House Rep. Kathleen Willis are among those pushing to change that.
This week, the pair of Democratic legislators reintroduced the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children's Health Act. The proposed bill, which was first introduced in February 2020, would mandate health and safety education for public school students across the state in kindergarten through 12th grade.
"I actually thought that sex education and relationship education was mandated throughout the schools," said Willis, who is beginning her fifth term in the legislature. "I actually found out that it was not. It's piecemeal, and that was something that really concerned me."
The REACH Act calls for age-appropriate, comprehensive and inclusive health and safety information to be provided to students.
For students in kindergarten through second grade, the age-appropriate education — as outlined by the proposed legislation — would focus on respecting others, identifying trusted adults they can rely on for guidance and support, and personal safety.
"We have found that it's not too early to have children understand what's appropriate and what's not, and recognizing people's rights to their own personal space," Willis said. "Certain kids are huggers and they like to hug. Well, there are other kids that don't like to be touched; who don't like to be hugged. It can be as simple as recognizing that."
Willis, and others in support of the bill, believe teaching children at a young age about the right to personal space and helping them to identify what safe and healthy relationships look like, will allow them to better navigate relationships as they get older.
Under the guidelines of the REACH Act, education in grades three through five would build on those core concepts. Topics would also begin to incorporate discussions about bullying, harassment, abuse and consent, as well as anatomy, puberty, hygiene, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Based on the guidelines, age-appropriate education for middle and high school students would expand on those discussions while also teaching students about sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, behavioral changes and the benefits of abstinence. Additionally, students would be provided with information about barrier methods like condoms, medication, contraception and sexually transmitted infection prevention measures.
"We can't afford for school districts not to provide comprehensive personal health and safety education," Villivalam said.
"... This legislation is comprehensive, is age appropriate, will ensure medically accurate information is dispersed, and we need to have it in a comprehensive way across the state of Illinois."
In Illinois, only 10% of LGBTQ youth in middle and high school say they feel they are receiving LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, according to recently-released data from GLSEN's 2019 National School Climate Survey.
That is in line with what Equality Illinois discovered in speaking with LGBTQ youth in Springfield and across the state.
"For these youths, just having content that both affirms them and addresses their health needs was critical," said Michael Ziri, who is the director of public policy for Equality Illinois. "We've heard shocking stories of trans youth who will raise their hand to ask about trans-inclusive content, and the teacher is unable to provide that because the law doesn't require that right now. In one situation, the student had to provide content for other trans students. That's not the way it should be."
While the REACH Act establishes guidelines for providing information to public school students across the state, school boards would have flexibility to determine how they would implement the required education.
If the bill were to pass and be signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker this year, it would go into effect in phases. The components for grades six through 12 would take effect July 1, 2022, while the requirements for kindergarten through fifth grade would begin July 1, 2023.
While Villivalam, Willis, Planned Parenthood Illinois Action and Equality Illinois are among those who continue to advocate for the advancement of the bill, there continues to be opposition.
Illinois Pro-Family Alliance is one of the organizations that remains opposed to the REACH Act, primarily out of concern for the way schools would address questions about abortion and gender identities.
"We believe that medical accuracy would demand that you teach that life begins at conception," said Molly Malone of Illinois Pro-Family Alliance.
Since its introduction last year, the proposed legislation has undergone a few amendments as those involved in its establishment have continued to seek council from the state's board of education. The biggest changes to the bill have been in the language outlining its standards.
However, the mandate that all instruction and material be age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate, medically accurate and allow for instructors to answer questions about the material being taught have remained constant in each version of the proposed legislation. Each version has also provided parents with the right to opt-out of the information being provided to their children.
"Youth all across the state deserve to have the same standard for healthy relationships and violence prevention no matter what school district they live in," Willis said. "The education that our youth receive in how they relate to one another and have interactions is a basic skill that they must all learn."