Education, Health, and Safety

Sex education bill lights up debate with talk about “pleasure,” “gender identity”

PROVIDENCE — Should Rhode Island schools be required to teach children in grades six through 12 about “pleasure based sexual relations, different sexual orientations …[and] same-sex relationships”?

Freshman Sen. Tiara Mack of Providence told colleagues last week that she believes so, despite the hatred that she says she has faced since “joining the Assembly as an unapologetically Black queer woman” and the names she has been called since proposing the sex education bill that has sparked heated debate.

“Since introducing S2285, I have been subject to name-calling, hatred and false information campaigns … rooted in fear-mongering [that paint] the LBGTQ-plus community members as … dangerous to our young people,” Mack told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. 

“Some [unidentified] politicians and their supporters have resorted to calling me “groomer,” “pedophile” and other disgusting and hurtful names.” 

“Why?” she asked rhetorically.

“It's because I have the audacity, the integrity and the bravery to introduce legislation that says to Rhode Island's youth and particularly our LGBTQ-plus youth, I see you and you deserve dignity, respect … and most importantly, affirming education,” said Mack, who came to the televised hearing in a T-shirt that said: “SEX(Ed).”

Bill's supporters speak up and write in

From some who testified in writing or in person, the response to her legislation was gratitude.

A 29-year-old transgender man told the lawmakers the absence of support at home and  relevant education at the “wealthy public high school” he attended left him “a suicidal mess.” 

The Women's Fund of Rhode Island wrote: “Traumatic early sexual experiences are associated with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders in youth. 

“Our schools have the opportunity to reduce the rate of these mental health disorders by educating high school students in Rhode Island about safe relationships through an updated sexual education curriculum,” the advocacy group wrote. 

“This isn't about teachers giving the ‘Kama Sutra' to their students to read, it's about teaching kids about their bodies and how to have healthy relationships,” added Jordan Goyette, of Warwick.

“We are ALL sexual humans, so ignoring the questions, the hormones, the curiosity of Rhode Island students is short-sighted and blatantly wrong,” wrote Karen Pizzaruso, 

of North Kingstown. “Yes, in a perfect scenario an educated parental unit would discuss healthy decisions, affirm that many humans identify as LGBTQ, and information is better than avoidance. But … we know that perfect scenarios do not exist.”  

Previous coverage:Sex-education bill that includes ‘pleasure' sets off alarms with some parents, lawmakers

As a medical doctor, Elana Hayasaka, of Pawtucket, said he now “routinely” treats patients with uninformed and “unhealthy views on sex,” including teens “in acute mental health crisis related to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation … I've [also] had to tell patients ‘No, it's not supposed to hurt so bad that you're in tears every time.'”

“We need to pass this bill for our kids,” echoed Emily Boucher, who described herself as a former charter school teacher now working in a private boarding high school in Rhode Island where, she said, “Teaching sex ed is my biggest responsibility.”

“Sex is not only fundamentally human and can be life changing, but also sex is taboo in our culture and therefore often horrifically confusing.”

Overwhelming opposition to Mack's bill

But the response from several of Mack's Senate colleagues — including Sens. Jessica de la Cruz, a Republican, and Ana Quezada, a Democrat — and most of the Rhode Islanders who sent written testimony was overwhelmingly opposed to her legislation. 

“What happened to family values?” Mike W. Rocha II, of Little Compton, wrote the lawmakers. “What happened to parents deciding what and how their children learn about sex?”

Schools should “teach writing, reading and arithmetic,” he wrote. “Keep your … personal agendas out of my daughter's education. When I read that this proposal seeks to teach “pleasure-based” sex education … first thing that comes to mind [is] ‘what kind of sick whackos are writing this crap?'”

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“Last week you all proposed double taxation for the unvaccinated and now … Groom the children,” said Jack King, of North Kingstown, referencing an unrelated bill to fine and double-tax people who refuse COVID-19 vaccinations. (The Senate sponsors on both bills include Mack, Sam Bell and Cynthia Mendes, who is running for lieutenant governor.)

 “What's next ?” King asked.

“The basics of menstruation and biology as children get older are what should be taught in schools. ‘Pleasure-based' sex education DOES NOT belong in the classroom.” echoed “Concerned Parent and Teacher” Kerri Lapierre, of North Providence.

She and many others, in almost identically worded letters to the lawmakers, cited the pre-pandemic Johns Hopkins assessment of Providence schools that precipitated the state takeover.

Each of these letters began: “Where is the sense of urgency for our children? 

Instead of focusing on the failure of our schools to teach English and math, we have legislation that seeks to mandate “pleasure-based” sex education for our 6th graders.” 

“Disgusting and inappropriate,” wrote Marissa Vezina, of Smithfield. 

Rhode Island Department of Education lobbyist Andy Andrade said the department has already developed an “age appropriate” curriculum for grade schoolers, in consultation with the Department of Health, that addresses many of the issues Mack cited, including mental health, bullying and how to say no.

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When asked the likelihood the legislation would pass, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio on Friday told The Journal: 

“It is clear that there was emotional testimony on all sides of this issue. Also clear was the overwhelming opposition from concerned parents, expressed in person and in hundreds of pages of written testimony.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio

“I cannot support this bill as written, and do not anticipate Senate consideration of it this year,” Ruggerio said.

For the record, Mack's bill says: “Courses in family life or sex education shall be appropriate for students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and shall affirmatively recognize pleasure based sexual relations, different sexual orientations and be inclusive of same-sex relationships in discussions and examples.

“In addition, comprehensive course instruction shall include gender, gender expression, gender identity, and the harm of negative gender stereotypes.”

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