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Jan. 20, 2021

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Battle Ground sex ed decision could be test case for next legislative session

Open house on health curriculum legislation canceled amid safety concerns

By , Columbian Education Reporter
2 Photos
Signs signaling opposition to proposed sex education curriculum are seen after being confiscated from a community member during a Battle Ground Public Schools Board of Directors meeting in October.
Signs signaling opposition to proposed sex education curriculum are seen after being confiscated from a community member during a Battle Ground Public Schools Board of Directors meeting in October. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

BATTLE GROUND — Faced with the opportunity to adopt medically up-to-date sexual health education curriculum, Battle Ground Public Schools instead took a step back.

The north Clark County school district’s board of directors two weeks ago decided by a 3-2 vote that sex education will not be taught if it’s not required by state law, except for lessons on puberty taught in fifth grade.

“I have not heard of anyone else who has gone backward like that,” said Laurie Dils, supervisor of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s sexual health education office.

The decision made Battle Ground a test case for the political football comprehensive sexual health education could become in the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 13. Some state legislators, including Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, hope to see scientifically accurate and consent-focused sexual health education mandated across Washington.

But opponents, including Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, are fighting further attempts to put comprehensive sexual health education in place. Gibson and a small group opposed to the curriculum appeared Monday night at a Planned Parenthood Votes workshop at the Battle Ground Community Library.

The political action committee previously scheduled an open house to discuss upcoming work in Olympia on sexual health education requirements but moved it due to perceived security risks upon learning of intended protests at the event.

A question of equity

Stonier and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle and chair of the House Education Committee, introduced a bill earlier this year that would mandate comprehensive sexual health education to all students by the 2022-2023 school year. Washington is one of 21 states that does not mandate sexual health education, according to the Guttmacher Institute. While there are standards and expectations for what is taught when a district chooses to offer sexual health education, individual districts, such as Battle Ground, can decide not to offer the lessons at all.

Under the proposed legislation, all districts will be required to adopt accurate, age-appropriate, inclusive curriculum that includes lessons on multiple forms of contraception, including abstinence. The curriculum must also teach affirmative consent, defined in the bill as a “conscious and voluntary agreement” to engage in sexual activity. Parents will be able to opt their children out of the curriculum, just as they can now.

“We’ve seen the statistics and the data,” Stonier said. “Kids having access to scientifically appropriate sex ed actually reduces risky behaviors.”

A similar bill passed out of the Senate along party lines last session but fizzled out after Santos failed to schedule it for a vote on the floor. Santos said the original bill didn’t give communities adequate time to prepare families and school staff for the changes.

It appears this bill could attract bipartisan support. Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he’s likely to vote “yes” on some version of the bill.

“Kids need to understand personal consent,” Harris said.

The effort, and Battle Ground’s vote, has caught the attention of Planned Parenthood Votes, the political arm of the reproductive health organization.

“We don’t believe the level of information you have for your sexual health and to have healthy relationships should be dependent on what school districts you grow up in,” said Courtney Normand, Washington state director for Planned Parenthood Votes.

Dils, with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, described the availability of sexual health education as an equity issue.

“Where somebody lives shouldn’t affect the accessibility of medically accurate sexual health information,” she said. “It protects student health.”

Opposition remains

Still, those who oppose comprehensive sexual health education, such as Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, vow to fight the legislation.

Battle Ground school board meetings have attracted dozens of outspoken critics of the proposed curriculum for the last year. Tina Lambert, who first recommended changes to the district’s sexual health education policy, noted that opposition is why she voted against the curriculum.

“With the community being so polarized on the issue, I didn’t feel comfortable going forward,” Lambert said.

Kraft has been particularly critical of Family Life and Sexual Health, or FLASH, a widely used curriculum developed by Public Health — Seattle & King County. FLASH includes a series of lessons on anatomy, consent, maintaining healthy relationships and birth control methods, including abstinence. Kraft has claimed the curriculum also contains explicit information on how to have sex.

That’s a talking point echoed by Gibson, who criticized Planned Parenthood Votes’ advocacy for comprehensive sex education.

“I want to know why it’s so important for them to push sex ed on kids,” Gibson said. “I think it should be left up to the people.”

Normand called assertions that the curriculum teaches students how to have sex “ridiculous and damaging,” saying programs like FLASH give students the information they need to make safe choices whether they have sex or not.

“It really takes away from the conversation we ought to be having, which is ‘Do young people have what they need to make healthy decisions?'” Normand said.

Troy McCoy, president of Battle Ground Public Schools Board of Directors and an outspoken supporter of the comprehensive sexual health education curriculum, voted against changing the district policy. McCoy said while he has to respect the will of the board, he understands how the decision can come across to an outsider as “narrow-minded.”

“My concern is for the health and safety and wellness of the students we’re serving, that we’re supposed to protect,” he said.

In the meantime, McCoy is optimistic about what changes the state might make. He’s disappointed, however, that the Battle Ground school district was a casualty in the politics of sexual health education.

“It’s sad to me that Battle Ground became a battle ground,” he said.