Washington could be on the brink of requiring all school districts to teach comprehensive sexual health education, including lessons on birth control, healthy relationships and consent.
Senate Bill 5395, requested by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, passed by a vote of 28 to 21 late last month in the Senate. It’s currently stuck in the House Education Committee, The Stranger reported last week. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle and chair of the House Education Committee, has not scheduled the bill for a vote on the floor. The cutoff to do so is Wednesday.
Proponents of the bill say it could help turn the tide of sexual assault rates among Washington teenagers, citing research that suggests students who have access to comprehensive sexual health education are healthier and less likely to be sexually assaulted than their peers who don’t.
Opponents, including Vancouver’s Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Republican, say the bill undercuts family values, and that conversations about reproductive health should happen in the home.
The bill, if approved, would phase in required sexual health education requirements for all grades through Sept. 1, 2021.
Current mandates limited
Current law mandates only that schools offer lessons on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted disease prevention from fifth grade onward. But schools can choose to provide more comprehensive sex education. If they do, existing law requires that the information must be age-appropriate, medically accurate and appropriate for students regardless of gender, race, disability or sexual orientation. Lessons must also include information about abstinence and other forms of contraception.
If SB 5395 passes, families will still have the opportunity to opt their children out of sexual health lessons.
The bill as proposed would require that consent be a cornerstone of whatever curriculum a school district adopts. Primary-aged students, for example, may talk about asking a friend before hugging them and how to communicate with friends in a healthy way. By fifth grade, students should be able to define sexual abuse, and by eighth grade on, define sexual consent and how to communicate consent to potential partners.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal pointed to Healthy Youth Survey data that suggest a significant number of Washington students have been sexually assaulted before they graduate.
In Washington, 31.4 percent of high school seniors reported that they had seen someone pressure someone else into unwanted physical contact, including sex. About 25.2 percent of students reported they’d been forced into unwanted physical contact. Clark County students reported similar numbers; 29.2 percent of students reported they had witnessed unwanted physical contact and 25.1 percent said they had experienced it.
“We are fighting what I consider to be one of the most profound epidemics of our current time,” Reykdal told the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee last month.
Better outcomes cited
A substantial body of research suggests that students who have access to comprehensive sexual health education experience better health outcomes than their peers who don’t. According to a 2016 report in the Journal of Adolescent Health, comprehensive sex education can reduce the rates of sexually risky behaviors, improve reproductive health outcomes, increase condom and contraceptive use and decrease pregnancy rates.
Researchers from Columbia University also reported that students who received sex education that included lessons on consent were less likely to be sexually assaulted in college.
“The research says if sex ed is going to be effective, it needs to be comprehensive, fact-based, evidence-informed,” said Laurie Dils, supervisor of OSPI’s sexual health education program.
Yet only 24 states plus the District of Columbia require that schools teach sexual health education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health rights. Some have specific riders on those requirements, like Tennessee, which only requires sex education of the pregnancy rate for girls ages 15 to 17 crests 19.5 percent.
Opposition from Kraft
Kraft has been among the most outspoken opponents of the bill from the beginning, even testifying against the bill in a Senate committee hearing. She said parents oppose the legislation because they feel they are losing control over what is taught to their children. She also said the curriculum is too graphic for young children, and raised concerns about gender identity lessons that are included in the Washington state standards.
“The parents are feeling like they are being taken out of the situation with all this,” Kraft said. “They should be the ones that hold control of values.”
But Dils said most curricula encourage students to go home and talk to their parents about what their own unique values are; professional development offered to sex ed teachers encourages this, too. If a child asks, for example, how old someone needs to be to start having sex, teachers could say there are many opinions on the matter and encourage the student to talk to their own parents.
“Really, there’s a strong commitment to sending kids home to talk to families,” she said. “Teachers should not be sharing their own values.”
As for Kraft’s fear that state standards contain “transgender promotion at very young ages,” Dils said that’s not true. Kindergartners may have conversations about whether it’s OK for boys to wear pink or girls to play football, for example, but there’s no so-called promotion of adopting a certain gender identity.
“Unless there’s a transgender kid in a kindergarten classroom, we would not expect conversations about gender identity at kindergarten,” Dils said. “It would be outside the norm, and it’s certainly not a recommendation.
“There’s nothing that promotes anything other than empathy, respect, kindness and understanding.”
Columbian reporter Jake Thomas contributed to this report.