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Youth lead the fight for statewide comprehensive sex ed

In early February, the House Education Policy Committee held the first hearing for HF 358, a bill that would ensure that Minnesota students get age appropriate, medically accurate sexuality education in schools. While the hearing included lively debate among committee members, the galvanizing energy and determined tone of the hearing was set by the voices of young people who testified in support of the bill from across the state. 

The message from youth was loud and clear: knowledge is power and we have a right to sexuality and consent education that is scientifically accurate, LGBTQ+ inclusive, culturally responsive, and shame free. 

Lead bill author Representative Sydney Jordan (60A) began by introducing the bill to the committee emphasizing the importance of all young people needing comprehensive sexuality education. She highlighted the inconsistencies that students currently experience in their sex education curriculums across schools and districts, particularly along racial, economic, and geographic lines. Current standards for sex education in Minnesota schools are minimal and only require districts to teach information that is “technically” accurate, a step below “medically and scientifically” accurate. These substandard requirements leave students with gaping holes in their understanding of their bodies and how to take care of them, which in turn leaves them underprepared in making decisions that could impact the rest of their lives. 

Out of an eight-week course, the sex ed unit lasted two days, and stressed abstinance while failing to provide us with adequate information to make responsible choices of our own sexual health. I and many of my classmates left that course with essential questions entirely unanswered.

Emma, current high school student from Moorhead

The hearing also included verbal testimony from a rockstar lineup of young people from districts across the state representing student-led organizations, including Minnesota Youth Council and Advocates for Youth, as well as folks from provider and advocacy organizations like Family Tree Clinic, Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and Autism Society of Minnesota. Together these testifiers brought a diversity of perspective and experience to help committee members understand why passing statewide comprehensive sex-education is in the best interest of young people, their families, and our Minnesota community. 

If it is the school system’s responsibility to educate the youth of society about general subjects, vocational aptitudes, social mores, and understanding of one’s place in the world. It is also the school system’s responsibility to teach young people about how to manage their physical bodies in order to holistically round out students as members of society.

Ava, senior at St. Anthony Village High School and student representative on the Minnesota Youth Council

Ava and students like her across the state are not only keenly aware of the lackluster nature of the sex-education they’re getting, but they also understand what is at stake for them if things don’t change. According to a 2020 article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health citing three decades of research on the effectiveness of school-based programs, studies show that abstinence-only education curriculums are less effective than comprehensive curriculums in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections, unintended teen pregnancies, and experiences of sexual violence.

Additionally, curriculums that fail to acknowledge the identities of LGBTQ+ youth can lead to further shame and stigma regarding identity and sexuality.

In my district, like many others in Minnesota, we did not learn about LGBTQ+ sexual health and identity. The topic was completely ignored, which made me, as a member of the community, feel completely ignored and also afraid—afraid that there was something wrong with me as I was not included in the conversation at all.

Maple, 17 year old from Two Harbors

This understanding of the role our schools play in society, coupled with staggering statistics, and experiences like Maple’s provides foundation and fuel for these student activists to continue to step up and share their stories as a powerful tool in the change they’re fighting for.

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The litany of powerful youth testimony was rounded out by the co-leader of the Advocates for Youth Minnesota chapter, Ponny.

What occurred to me at 4 years old was not a special case. I was not the exception of what happens when we teach our children false information. Instead I was one of the millions of examples of why our current systems do not work. When sexuality is approached with silence and shame we increase the risk for young people in facing gender-based violence, sexual assault, abuse, and unhealthy relationships.

Ponny, co-leader of the Advocates for Youth Minnesota chapter

Ponny’s testimony highlighted the need for curricula that include consent and healthy relationships, and the risk we take with young people’s lives when we do not provide them with adequate information.

HF 358 passed out of this first hearing and will progress through additional committee hearings in the coming weeks and towards a full floor vote in the House. It is clear that young people are the driving force behind this momentum. They have been consistent and clear in their conviction that no decisions can be made about them without them. 

We will continue to share news on the HF 358 as the 2021 Minnesota legislative session continues.  Thank you to courageous youth testifiers, our coalition partners, and all of you who continue to work for passage of this important legislation.

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