SPRINGFIELD – Two bills that would add the risks of e-cigarette use and sexting to public school curriculum will head to the full Illinois House of Representatives after unanimously passing a committee Wednesday.
The House education curriculum committee heard testimony about House Bills 4007 and 3928, which would require public schools to teach the dangers of sexting and electronic cigarettes, respectively, in health education classes.
HB 4007, sponsored by state Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, would require students in grades 6-12 to learn about the legal and personal consequences of sharing sexual images and videos.
“Our children know a lot more about smartphones than we do. And it's time for us to acknowledge that and have conversations with them so that they don't mess up their lives legally, socially and academically,” West said before the committee voted 20-0 to advance his bill.
Illinois would join New Jersey as the only states to require sexting be included in sex education classes.
A 2018 study of 110,000 teenagers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found 15 percent had sent sexually explicit text messages and 27 percent said they had received them. Twelve percent also admitted to sending an explicit text of someone else without their consent.
Electronically sharing sexual images and videos between minors is illegal in Illinois and 24 other states, according to a 2018 analysis by the Cyberbullying Research Center. The penalty in Illinois is usually community service or counseling, but sexting can also place kids on the state's sex offender registry.
“When a sext message is sent without consent, it is considered child pornography,” West said.
West said Rockford Lutheran High School invited him to speak to students about sexting, which the school currently does not discuss in its sex education.
“They knew that it could decrease their reputational value, but they didn't understand that they could get hit with a child pornography charge,” West told the committee. “They didn't understand how dramatic or how consequential it could be.”
“I told them, ‘You are the subject matter experts. Is this something that is good for our schools?’ And they said ‘yes, we need to talk about this,’” West said.
More than 900 people officially registered as supporters of the bill, while 49 filed in opposition. None spoke at the committee hearing.
Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, said his organization feels HB 4007 is an unnecessary new mandate.
Schwarm said the IASB asked West to place his mandate in internet safety and cyberbullying curricula instead of sex education, suggesting it would be “less burdensome on school districts.” West said he declined because not all school districts teach sex education and he wants his bill to apply to only those that do.
“This will be a requirement for the schools that offer at this time,” West said.
West’s bill also does not mandate a certain rigid curriculum for schools to follow, but only requires a classroom discussion.
“I’m not trying to mandate what kind of curriculum (teachers) present. I'm just simply saying that this needs to be a topic of discussion,” he said.
HB 4007 has five co-sponsors, all Democrats.
HB 3928, sponsored by state Rep. Joyce Mason, D-Gurnee, would add electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices as topics to be taught under Illinois’ Critical Health Problems and Comprehensive Health Education Program.
That law lays out the major educational areas that are required to be discussed in all elementary and secondary education curricula. It already requires lessons on tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
“It's really just updating it to make sure that we are including what have very recently been learned to be very dangerous items,” Mason told committee members before her bill passed 19-0.
E-cigarettes, which contain nicotine and are marketed as a stylish way to wean smokers off tobacco cigarettes, have been a major topic of concern for legislators recently, especially regarding underage users. Twenty-one percent of U.S. high school students used e-cigarettes or vaping devices in 2018, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says each cartridge of nicotine in a Juul e-cigarette, the most popular brand, contains the same amount of nicotine as one pack of tobacco cigarettes. Juul came under fire last year for marketing its nicotine pods with kid-friendly flavors like mango and fruit.
E-cigarettes and vaping “need to be included in that comprehensive health education,” Mason said.
Fellow committee members did not ask her questions before voting. Seven people registered as supporters of the bill, while none registered as opponents.
Schwarm said the school boards association is “not quite as worried or concerned about that bill” because similar subjects are already taught in health education.
“I am sure by now districts have already included e-cigarettes and vaping in that,” he said, “so that’s really not going to make a big change for school districts.”
HB 3928 has two co-sponsors, Democratic state Reps. Daniel Didech, of Buffalo Grove, and Camille Lilly, of Chicago.
The two bills now go to the full 118-member House for discussion and another vote. If passed by majority vote of the full chamber, they will be sent to the Senate for consideration.