Why one Wisconsin teen wants lawmakers to prioritize sex ed

Sen. Melissa Agard says sex ed gives young people the knowledge and skills they need for a lifetime of good health and happiness, and sets them up for success in a diverse society. Photo courtesy Adobe stock

By Salina Heller

February 27, 2024

Wisconsin Democrats are looking to reinstate a bill that would require all public schools in the state to teach a comprehensive sex education course. The Healthy Youth Act would require students to receive medically accurate, age appropriate, and human growth and development information.

“I’ve known people who’ve gotten STIs, I’ve known people who’ve gotten pregnant at a young age, and those aren’t things to be toyed with,” said 15-year old Naomi Jovaag. “A lot of that could have been avoided if we had that education — if we had something that could’ve shown us how to have a normal, healthy sexual life.”

Madison high school student Naomi Jovaag says without comprehensive sex education, students are more likely to get into unsafe situations that can lead to irreparable damage.

A sophomore at Madison East High School, Jovaag is well-versed in all things teenager. That’s not only because she is one, but because she’s also a Teen Educator with the Wisconsin PATCH program, a group of youth and adults that believe programs and policies for young people should include them. “My experiences, my friends’, my family’s — growing up there’s so much what people may call ‘locker talk’ — about unsafe sex practices, but also inappropriate things in general,” Jovaag said. “It became apparent that it wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t the teachers’ fault, it wasn’t the parents’ fault, and it wasn’t even the districts’ fault. It was just the lack of ability we had, to have that curriculum — to have that education we needed to learn.”

What is the Healthy Youth Act?

Sen. Melissa Agard is joined by community advocates to reinstate the Healthy Youth Act. Photo courtesy Sen. Melissa Agard

Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) reintroduced the Healthy Youth Act in January. Under the bill, public schools would need to offer “human growth and development” curricula, which includes sex education. It would require schools to cover things like sexual anatomy, gender stereotypes, proper use of contraceptives, and how to recognize and report unwanted verbal or physical behaviors. “We know young people have a lot of ways they can receive information in regards to relationships and their own sexuality,” Agard explained. “We want to make sure we’re providing them with science-based accurate information so they can make the best informed decisions for themselves, have healthy relationships, be allowed to think critically about the world, and know how to be good friends to one another.” The Healthy Youth Act is modeled after a former state law of the same name, passed in 2010, ensuring that students were taught about specific topics including puberty, pregnancy, parenting, and gender stereotypes. But in 2012, then-Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans repealed the law and replaced all of  those topics with abstinence as the preferred instruction, if districts chose to have a sexual education curriculum at all. Agard said the repeal took away kids’ rights to know themselves and prepare themselves for emotional and physical changes, as well as a way to provide assistance, support, and compassion to their peers. She said abstinence-only education is “a disservice to our kids.” “It’s vitally important that we provide these resources to our kiddos so they can not only take care of themselves, but be good allies to their friends, whether it be LGBTQ folks, or people who have grown up in a family where there’s a taboo in talking about these topics,” Agard said. “Being able to provide our young people with these resources ultimately gives them higher quality lives and in some cases saves lives.” It’s a sentiment echoed by the 15-year old Jovaag. “We should know at this point that telling teenagers not to do something isn’t going to make them not do it and the best thing you can do is tell them how to do it safely so they don’t get hurt,” Jovaag said. “The fact that this isn’t our priority in schools where teenagers spend almost all day is baffling to me.”

Why they’re calling it “common sense legislation”

Mom of four, Katie Bushman, would love to see more expansive health education in Wisconsin public schools.

Katie Bushman was just finishing up teaching a water Zumba class at the YMCA in Eau Claire, before heading to her shop in Chippewa Falls, when she heard about the bill’s revival. “That’s fantastic!” she excitedly said. She said this type of education is common sense — it affects all kids. “Every child is going to go through puberty,” Bushman said. “Every child is going to go through sexual development. To deprive them of information about that, and to deprive them of relevant options and information, doesn’t prevent them from accessing information, it just means they’re more likely to get it from a non-credible source.” Bushman is quite invested in the topic. A mother of four, including one that identifies as non-binary, she was also part of a group that reviewed the health development curriculum for her district last year, ran for school board, and is an advocate for the LGBTQ community. “What we talk about with our own kiddos, and that my friends and I talk about, is that children will do better if they have relevant information if it’s scientifically based and if it’s accurate,” Bushman said. Bushman is hopeful that now, with fair congressional maps in place, the bill will be passed in a new legislative session. “I think it’s really a travesty that there are so many kids who don’t have access to that information and who are relying on their peers, who are relying on their own internet sources,” Bushman said. It’s not only problematic, it’s potentially dangerous for them.” And Naomi Jovaag is hoping young voices like her own will matter. “To our government: You’re here to protect us and if you don’t act to protect us, people are going to get hurt,” Jovaag said. “And to our parents: if you’re scared about your kids learning how to stay safe, then you’re not really protecting us in a way that you should.”

Author

  • Salina Heller

    A former 15-year veteran of reporting local news for western Wisconsin TV and radio stations, Salina Heller also volunteers in community theater, helps organize the Chippewa Valley Air Show, and is kept busy by her daughter’s elementary school PTA meetings. She is a UW-Eau Claire alum.

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