‘Students crave this knowledge’: Advocates push for health and sex education to be required in Illinois public schools

CHICAGO — Like many high schoolers across the state, Cal Vine, 16, had to take a health class their sophomore year. Vine, who uses the pronoun they, was looking forward to the sexual education session at Carbondale Community High School.

But the class focused mainly on basic anatomy and drug use and did not address Vine’s questions about sexual identity and health.

“There’s some stuff I had to learn on my own, and I still don’t know everything, but health should be about everything you need to know about relationships in the real world and how they affect you,” Vine said. “In the classroom we learn nothing about people like me. Our teachers never talked about queer people. It was like we did not exist.”

In an effort to create inclusive and factual health education standards, a coalition of public officials and activists is pushing to reintroduce the Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children’s Health Act, which would require personal health and safety education for K-12 public schools in Illinois.

The act defines grade-appropriate education ranging from personal safety to anatomy, abuse, bullying and gender identity for elementary-age students.

Grades six through 12 build on previous instruction and deal with issues like consent, sexual harassment, abuse and interpersonal violence, plus offer information about sexual orientation, gender identity and sexual health.

Currently, 30 states mandate personal health and safety education. Illinois does not have any mandates in place.

“We have to look at this through all grade levels, it is not too early to teach children about healthy relationships,” said state Rep. Kathleen Willis, an Addison Democrat who is the House sponsor of the act. “We hear about students being bullied young, by doing this starting at a young age, we are making sure we take those steps forward so we can have young adults that can later understand behaviors and healthy relationships.”

The requirements would be phased in over a two-year period, said state Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat.

“We can’t afford for schools not to provide comprehensive health and safety education,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s uniform and that there is a standard. We don’t want a situation where a teacher is saying something that isn’t medically accurate. This legislation is comprehensive, is age appropriate and will assure medically accurate information is dispersed.”

Willis said the guidelines would be placed on basic curriculum but how schools decide to teach them would be up to individual school districts.

The legislation was initially introduced in February 2020 but had been delayed because of the COVID-19 emergency declaration.

Illinois has remained largely stagnant on health education policy, relying on legislation from the 1980s, according to Brigid Leahy, senior director of public policy for Planned Parenthood Illinois Action.

“The decision was made to have it be optional; that’s been the status quo for 30 years,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve gone back and tinkered with it, but we decided to start working on this in the fall of 2019. The base conclusion is that every student deserves to get quality personal health and safety education.”

Supporters are hopeful it will pass and have received interest from legislators, she added.

Deonn Strathman, director of Community Engagement and Adolescent Health Initiatives at Planned Parenthood of Illinois, has overseen outreach and education programming for over 10 years in Ohio and Illinois. Strathman, who goes by the pronoun they, said they have seen little changes when it comes to health education over their career, especially when it comes to sexual education.

“I’m still hearing people using scare tactics in the classroom or homophobic language,” they said. “It’s so heartbreaking to talk to college students about how they never got sex education and they just feel like they’re unprepared to take care of their bodies.”

Most common in sexual education is the need to “piecemeal” information heard from peers or through social media, Strathman added. A lack of comprehensive education creates gaps in students’ education that are later filled, sometimes with incorrect information.

“We’re dealing with a new generation that’s saturated with social media so it’s also being able to talk to them about misinformation,” Strathman said. “Students crave this knowledge; they want to have frank conversations.”

While sex education remains a subject of contention among schools both private and public, Strathman emphasized that education programs are about seeking personal agency over one’s body and making healthy choices.

“Ignoring it doesn’t help the situation, it makes young people ignorant of their own bodies and it makes them unable to make safe choices for themselves,” Strathman said. “Planning is empowerment, jealousy isn’t a sign of love, condoms aren’t reusable. More than ever, our young people are overwhelmed and need this information.”