OLYMPIA — Democratic legislators want to require public schools to teach comprehensive sexual-health education, despite concerns from some over a loss of parental control and a belief that this decision should be made at the local level.
Senate Bill 5395, requested by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), would mandate that public-school districts use a curriculum that encourages healthy relationships, teaches about behaviors that contribute to sexual violence and emphasizes the importance of affirmative consent — as opposed to the extensively used “no means no” education, according to a legislative analysis.
Washington’s current sexual-health-education system gives public schools the option to teach it or not, but requires that, if taught, the curriculum must be age-appropriate, scientifically and medically accurate and inclusive of all genders, races and sexual orientations. It must also include information about abstinence and other methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, which would remain the same under the proposed legislation. These guidelines were required starting in 2008 after the Legislature’s passage of the Healthy Youth Act.
In a public hearing for the bill, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal called the issue of sexual assault in schools “one of the most profound epidemics of our current time,” saying that one-third of female high-school graduates in Washington are sexually assaulted and one-sixth of males. He likened school districts opting out of sexual education to not teaching geometry or the history of the Holocaust.
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Several students joined Reykdal at the hearing to support the bill. “Sexual-health education is education and it’s so much more,” said Aren Wright, a sophomore at Olympia High School. “It empowers young people with developmentally appropriate and medically accurate information and provides answers to their questions about sexual relationships without shaming or judging.”
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau said in an emailed statement the state’s largest district has been teaching sexual-health education for over 20 years and that it remains a “top priority.”
Reykdal noted later in an interview that just 60 percent of Washington’s school districts are teaching some form of sexual education in middle and high school — but by and large, he added, most of those offerings are not comprehensive; if passed, this bill would fundamentally change how schools teach the subject.
As of Feb. 1, just 13 states require that public schools’ sexual-education classes be medically accurate, while only eight mandate that it be appropriate for a student’s cultural background and unbiased, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nongovernmental research organization with offices in New York and Washington, D.C., that aims to advance sexual health and reproductive rights.
Twenty-four other states and the District of Columbia already mandate some form of sexual education, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The measure’s proponents think it’s time that Washington catches up with much of the nation.
“It’s once again an area where, as adults, we’ve let young people down and they are now leading the way and asking for this information so that they can make the right decisions,” said Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, the prime sponsor of the legislation and former president of the Federal Way School District Board. “We need to catch up with the times if we’re going to change what young people need to experience.”
If the bill passes, OSPI would create a list of comprehensive sexual-health-education curricula, any of which could be used by school districts. Or schools could create their own curriculum as long as it falls under state standards. Public schools would be required to report what they use to OSPI each year.
The curriculum would need to be phased in for sixth- through 12th-graders by Sept. 1, 2020, and then for students in kindergarten through fifth grade by the same day the following year. The elementary-school curriculum will be focused on, among other things, how to be respectful, a key to healthy relationships from a young age.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, the sponsor of the House version of the bill, said the goal is to support “kids with understanding good communication skills and good relationship health.”
The bill passed its first hurdle Wednesday as it was approved by the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee on a party-line vote with seven Democrats voting in favor and four Republicans opposed.
As in most states, parents or guardians may opt their children out of the class or review the curriculum by filing a written request with either the local school board or the school’s principal. This option remains under the proposed legislation. However, some think it should be an opt-in system.
While 22 states and the District of Columbia require a parental notice for sexual education, just three states — Arizona, Nevada and Utah — require consent from parents, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Wilson believes the proposed system allows for the most children to learn what she thinks is necessary going forward as they mature.
“As long as we always have opportunity for people to choose to opt-out of something, it gives us an opportunity to inform the greatest majority of folks who are interested in making sure their kids have the information they need,” she said.
Central Washington’s Eastmont School District Superintendent Garn Christensen, who prefers to leave much of this type of education up to parents, said his district uses a curriculum focused on state-recommended sexually-transmitted-infection prevention and general sexual health, and doesn’t foresee a change anytime soon. Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, the top Republican on the education committee and a former Eastmont School Board president, agreed, saying he was unsure what the problem with current sexual education is now.
Decisions about sex education, said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, are “parental rights and responsibilities.” As a father of two children ages 9 and 11, Hawkins said that he and his wife, like some of his constituents, want to have these conversations with their kids — rather than leaving the decision-making in the hands of the state.
Richland School District Superintendent Rick Schulte thinks the correct venue for this discussion is at a local level, where the decision-makers are bound to understand the community better.
“Those are important issues that should be left primarily to a local school board, which is far more accessible to parents and community than an Olympia Legislature is,” said Schulte.
Schulte also said he worries that the state is forcing schools to do so many things without enough time in the day to accommodate it all.
Schulte added, “I think we’ve already run into the point where we can’t do all the things the Legislature is already mandating.”