Politics & Government

Comprehensive sex education could be required in Washington’s public schools

Students from Olympia High School listen to testimony regarding mandatory sexual education during a public hearing on Feb. 13.
Students from Olympia High School listen to testimony regarding mandatory sexual education during a public hearing on Feb. 13. shauna.sowersby@thenewstribune.com

Comprehensive sex education would be mandatory for Washington state public school students under a bill introduced in the Legislature.

SB 5395 would require all public schools in Washington to provide inclusive, mandatory sexual education by Sept. 1, 2020.

Educators, students, and parents packed into a crowded hearing room to discuss the proposal Feb. 13.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn. Wilson, a career educator, said she has seen firsthand the effectiveness of teaching a comprehensive sexual education program.

“Comprehensive sexuality health education is essential to young people’s good health, their relationships and also meeting their life goals,” said Wilson. “Young people deserve to have information, they deserve to have resources, and they deserve to have the skills they need to protect their health and also build their future without shame and without judgment.”

Current state law gives public schools the option to teach sexual education. The information provided by schools must be medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate and include information about abstinence and other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Additionally, the information must be appropriate for students regardless of gender, race, disability status or sexual orientation. Parents may excuse their children from participating.

Comprehensive sexual education would take current requirements further by teaching students how to identify and respond to abusive behaviors in relationships and how to encourage healthy relationships. Education also would promote the importance of affirmative consent.

Information provided to students must continue to be consistent with health and physical education learning standards. School districts would have to meet annual requirements by providing the state with reports on the education they are providing to students. Parents would still have the option to opt-out under the new bill.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said SB 5395 comes before the Legislature during a crucial time.

According to Reykdal, current data shows that one-third of girls who graduate high school in Washington have been sexually assaulted, coerced or forced into inappropriate touching. One-sixth of graduating high school boys have experienced the same.

“The linkages to suicide are real,” said Reykdal. “The disproportionate impact of sexual assault for Native American girls, the LGBTQ community and students with disabilities is profound. This is not a matter of opinion anymore when there is a public health crisis.”

Empowering students through education is necessary if the state wants to see a decrease in the current statistics, he said.

Aren Wright is queer and a sophomore at Olympia High School. Wright said mandatory sexual education is necessary in schools. Blatant misinformation is dangerous and ignores the needs of queer youth, Wright said.

“I believe that sex education must be inclusive of all genders identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations,” said Wright. “Every person has the right to sexual health information that is sex positive, honest, inclusive and accurate.”

Wright said education about sexual assault, violence and relationship assault also needs to be expanded. Wright talked about being harassed at school by a classmate and feeling powerless to find help. Finally, a teacher noticed the boy snapping Wright’s bra in class and directed Wright to the proper resources. Comprehensive sex ed would help future students avoid such situations, Wright said.

Others disagreed with the intent of the bill.

Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, spoke during the public hearing. Kraft said that she believes the passage of the bill would cause many students to leave public schools.

Kraft also said she doesn’t feel the curriculum provided is as age-appropriate as claimed, especially when addressing being transgender.

“Why would we promote that type of confusion for our young children?” Kraft asked the committee. “I am not against the transgender community. I have met with some of those folks — lovely people. I am talking curriculum that absolutely introduces confusion when its not the public education’s place to do so, nor should we be using taxpayer dollars to fund ‘how to have sex’ curriculum for young children.”

Kraft said sexual education should be administered by parents at home so that it more accurately aligns with each family’s values.

Courtney Normand is the Washington State Director for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands. In an interview with The News Tribune, Normand said parents, teachers and health experts care about providing information to students that’s most appropriate for their age group.

“Unfortunately, we put our young people’s health and safety at risk when we make excuses for denying them access to common sense information,” said Normand.

Many parents agreed with Kraft’s assessment of the bill and said the state should not have so much control over sexual education.

“The comprehensive sexual education that’s offered is a one-size-fits-all instruction without regards to the needs of various communities in our state who have differing values and beliefs,” said Beth Daranciang, a concerned parent. “It interferes with decisions that rightfully belong to school boards and ultimately parents.”

Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Twelve states, including Washington, require mandatory HIV education.