A new state law that takes effect this upcoming academic year regarding how Illinois schools handle sex education likely won’t mean sweeping changes regarding how the subject is taught in McHenry County classrooms, officials said.
Many districts, covering students in Kindergarten through high school, have decided to continue teaching sex ed as they have in the past, without adopting the state’s new guidelines. Others the Northwest Herald recently contacted are taking more time to study the issue.
“The health curriculum we currently teach has served our students and community well,” Crystal Lake District 155 Board President Adam Guss said during a July board meeting.
Illinois’ new law, which Gov. JB Pritzker signed last year, requires schools that teach comprehensive sex education to follow the National Sex Education Standards. The NSES is a national set of standards and guidelines for teaching personal health and safety to elementary school students and comprehensive sex education to middle and high school students. Districts that teach comprehensive sex education are now required to meet those standards, but may choose their own curriculum.
The guidelines offer “comprehensive personal health and safety education and comprehensive sexual health education as age and developmentally appropriate education that aligns with the National Sex Education Standards, including information on consent and healthy relationships, anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent sexual development, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation and identity, sexual health and interpersonal violence,” according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Illinois districts, however, are not required to teach comprehensive sex education, and the law also allows local districts and parents to opt out if they want.
One measure lawmakers also passed says that schools must offer age-appropriate discussion on issues such as texting. A different law, however, has sparked some trepidation, including its guidelines on teaching about sexuality and identification.
McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools Diana Hartmann said she did not know how individual districts would respond and was not dictating policy at the county level. Hartmann, however, said she didn’t believe such topics were appropriate for a classroom setting.
“I grew up in the time where the boys got their movie, the girls got their movie, and that was it,” Hartmann said. “If it was me and I got to say this is what I want my kids to sit through, I’d want them to know about reproduction. How babies are made, all of that is fine. But for me to have my children here, to sit in the classroom and have discussions on gender fluidity or identity or sexuality, I think that’s a topic for outside the classroom and however parents want to handle that.”
Hartmann added she thought there could be room for more guidance as to what kinds of discussions happen between students and counselors/social workers in the schools “behind those closed doors.”
Nevertheless, school districts across McHenry County seem to be taking a largely similar approach.
Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 shared in a newsletter to parents over the summer that the district would not be adopting the new curriculum standards, said Denise Barr, district director of communications.
Cary District 26 Superintendent Brian Coleman also said that after “careful consideration and review,” the district would not be adopting the new standards and would continue using its existing curriculum.
“The district believes its current health and sex education curriculum is developmentally and age appropriate for our students,” Coleman said.
Fox River Grove District 3 also confirmed it would not be adopting the new curriculum. Prairie Grove District 46 sent a letter to parents July 15 stating it would not be adopting the new standards.
“We believe the new language in state law does not impact our current curriculum, which has served our community well for many years,” McTague said in a written statement. “District administrators and instructors are always mindful to review curriculum to make sure it reflects any new state standards and guidelines.”
“[S]chool districts may adapt the curriculum to the specific needs of their community as long as all instruction and materials, including any provided and/or presented by outside individuals or organizations, do not conflict with the law,” the notice said. Further details were sent to parents via the summer 2022 district newsletter. The health/sexual health curriculum for grades 6-12 were revised during the 2021-22 school year, and will be posted on the district’s website before school begins, according to the newsletter.
“The scope and sequence documents for grades K-5 personal health and safety are currently scheduled to be developed during the 2022-23 school year,” according to the newsletter.
Marengo District 165 said it would not be adopting the standards. Superintendent Lea Damisch said the district was “currently satisfied” with its curriculum.
In Huntley District 158, communications director Alex LeMoine said the district’s current curriculum was comprehensive. While the district’s administrative team would continue to review curriculum annually, at the time they felt the current sex ed curriculum suited the needs of the community, and thus would not be changing as a result of SB 818.
Woodstock 200 officials told the Northwest Herald they would be opting out of the curriculum.
Kim Cook, a former elementary school nurse and a certified health education specialist from St. Charles, is the founder of Sex Education Alliance, an organization comprised of independent sex education professionals who work to make sex education more accessible.
Cook said adopting the NSES guidelines is “long overdue” in Illinois, as many children learn about sex from their peers.
“Despite what some politicians say, the vast majority of parents would like sex education to be taught in school,” Cook wrote in an email. “Many parents are uncomfortable talking to their kids about this part of the human experience. By teaching sex ed in school, it opens up the lines of communication between parent and child.
“The average age for accessing porn on the home computer is age 11. If parents fear schools are misinforming kids, think again. It’s happening under a parent’s unknowing eye.”
• Kane County Chronicle Editor Aimee Barrows contributed to this report.