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Washington one step closer to comprehensive sex ed in public schools

A bill requiring Washington’s public schools to provide “comprehensive sexual health education” passed off the Senate floor Wednesday.

Providing sexual health education is currently optional for public schools. If a school does provide the classes, it can choose a curriculum from a list provided by OSPI that’s updated yearly. Or, schools can find or develop another curriculum that fall within certain requirements.

In the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)’s latest report, 86 percent of the 293 reporting schools provided sexual health instruction. Those percentages include instruction as broad as a comprehensive curriculum and as narrow as single-topic instruction on abstinence or HIV prevention. Sen. Lisa Wellman, who chairs the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Committee, said in debate that “nearly 60 percent of high schools and 30 percent of middle schools” in the state offer comprehensive sexual health instruction.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction requested the bill that passed out of the Senate today, which would establish additional standards for curricula and require every school to provide comprehensive instruction. Schools would still be able to choose or develop their own curriculum within the requirements, using tools developed by OSPI to do so.

The new requirements (see the table below) include an emphasis on affirmative consent before sexual activity and “encouraging health relationships that are based on mutual respect and affection and are free from violence, coercion, and intimidation.”

Current requirementsRequirements in the bill
Medically and scientifically accurate
Medically and scientifically accurate
Age-appropriate Age-appropriate
Appropriate for students regardless of gender, race, disability status, or sexual orientationInclusive for all students regardless of their protected class status
Includes information about abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases
Includes both abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases
Consistent with 2005 guidelines developed by DOH and OSPI
Encourages healthy relationships that are based on mutual respect and affection and are free from violence, coercion, and intimidation
Teaches how to identify and respond to attitudes and behaviors that contribute to sexual violence
Emphasizes the importance of affirmative consent, meaning conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity, as a requirement before sexual activity
Consistent with the 2005 guidelines and health and physical education learning standards, which must be available on OSPI’s website

Parents would still be able to request that their child be excused from the classes. And teaching abstinence would still be allowed, but not without instruction on contraceptives and disease prevention as well.

Senators voted 28-21 to pass the bill, almost entirely along party lines: All Democrats aside from Sen. Tim Sheldon voted in favor of the bill, all Republicans voted against it. The vote on the bill’s final passage came at the end of a debate that lasted over two hours.

Republican senators proposed 13 amendments in total. The Senate voted to adopt one of the amendments, which clarifies that districts must grant a parent or guardian’s request to have their child excused.

Four of the amendments that were voted down came from Sen. Doug Ericksen, who was in vocal opposition to the bill throughout the hearing.

“I’m getting very concerned about what’s happening to our public schools,” Ericksen said, “as one political party in Washington State continues to try to drive home a social agenda through my public schools that many children go to who don’t have a choice to go anywhere else.”

Many arguments against the measure centered on the bill taking away local control. By mandating that schools teach sexual health education, senators in opposition to the bill argued that school boards and parents would have less of a say than they do today.

Ericksen, for example, said parents would pull their kids out of school and “vote with their feet” by moving elsewhere. And Sen. Mike Padden argued that the bill would fuel efforts to create a 51st state.

Senators arguing against the bill frequently referred to the Legislature as some variation of  “the great school board in the sky,” referring to what they see as government overreach.

“What I worry about these sorts of mandates from the school board in the sky, which may be a common theme here today or even the session, is that we send a message to parents that distant government is going to mandate something as sensitive and important as human sexuality,” Sen. Steve O’Ban said.

The bill’s prime sponsor, newly elected Sen. Claire Wilson, was president of the Federal Way school board until she resigned from that position on Tuesday, a decision she said had nothing to do with this bill.

Wilson said the local school districts still have choices, since they can choose or create a curriculum within the parameters set by the bill.

“Local control is still there, what we’re saying is: You can no longer not talk about it,” Wilson said. “And that’s the critical part.”

The bill now heads to the House, where a companion bill didn’t have a public hearing. The bill is sure to face resistance from at least one member, Rep. Vicki Kraft, who passionately testified against the bill at its public hearing in the Senate.

If the bill passes through the House, comprehensive sexual health education would be phased in for students in grades six through 12 by September 2020, and for students in grades kindergarten through five by September of the following year.

Opponents also took issue with including younger grades in the bill. Sen. Shelly Short — who proposed an amendment that would’ve only required the classes for students in grades six through 12 — called the idea of teaching sexual health education to all grade levels “absolutely wrong.”

To this point, Sen. Wellman pointed out that kindergarten curriculum would likely include topics like asking for consent for a hug and the differences between girls and boys.

Ultimately, Wilson and other supporters of the bill stress that the bill is about school safety.

“I’m thrilled that it passed, on behalf of young people across our state and also adults and parents who are really looking for this,” Wilson said. “Unfortunate that people get stuck on the issue of sex as opposed to sexuality health, as opposed to decision-making, as opposed to choices — in response to sexual assault, in response to the Me Too movement, what are we doing to support the young people?”

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