Editor’s note: Some terms used in this story may be offensive to some readers.
So many issues are polarizing the nation – racial and financial inequity, defunding police, climate change, partisan politics and so many more.
In Washington state, add to that list sex education.
State lawmakers passed a law requiring comprehensive sex ed in all schools. But more than 240,000 people signed a petition against it, saying parents and local school districts should control that issue.
As a result, Referendum 90 is on the Nov. 3 ballot. If you want the new sex ed measure vote for it; if you don’t, vote to reject it.
State Sen. Christine Rolfes, who represents Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo and North Kitsap County and is a supporter of the new direction, said lawmakers had the best intentions in passing the law. They want to make sure all districts teach sex ed; as it is now some don’t. Their other main goals are to teach young kids about inappropriate touching and older students about only having sex when it’s consensual.
That last idea is especially important to this area. “Female students at Bainbridge High School” have brought up the issue in recent years about “what constitutes assault,” she said.
But, in general, she said the sex ed curriculum would not change much. “The school districts in Kitsap County, they all use this already,” Rolfes added.
She said most of the people against the measure live in areas where no sex ed is taught. “That’s really where the loud voices are. I’m sensitive to their concerns,” she said, adding the bill allows parents to opt-out their children. Of course, she knows most won’t because of the stigma, despite school efforts to combat bullying.
Rolfes said while the state provides a list of acceptable curriculums, local school districts have the final say. “There’s still a lot of local control and choice,” she said.
The 23rd District senator said while lawmakers came up with the general goals, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, with the help of health experts, devised the list of acceptable curriculums.
She said the sex ed bill really wasn’t a major focus of the legislature. “It’s turned political in an unhelpful way,” she said. “There’s been a lot of social media discussion on this. There’s a lot of misinformation on a topic that is always highly charged.”
But she said that’s what referendums are for.
She said if the measure is rejected, she predicts local school districts and teachers would still update curriculum to some degree.
“Ideally it would be taught at home,” she admitted.
Jennifer Knicely, director of Teaching and Learning for the Bainbridge Island School District, said in an email that since sex ed is already taught here, R-90 shouldn’t have that much effect here no matter which way the vote goes.
“The legislation will have the largest impact on districts who have not already adopted a sexual education program or board policy,” she said.
If R-90 passes, the curriculum would be vetted just like any other.
“We solicit input from our stakeholders (such as members of the Parent Teacher Organizations, school site councils) and we have an Instructional Materials Review Committee that approves instructional materials that are new,” she said, adding the school board would vote on the final recommendation.
Knicely said the district believes in the family.
Board policy “acknowledges that the primary responsibility for education in family life and human reproduction rests with the home. The school can and shall only supplement,” she wrote in the email.
Supporters of R-90 point to a 2018 youth survey as to why young people need more knowledge about sex. It shows:
• In a class size of 30, three eighth-graders, eight 10th-graders and 14 seniors have had sex.
• By eighth grade, 21 percent had had sex with four or more partners; by 10th grade 20 percent; and by 12th grade 26 percent.
• Yet many aren’t even using condoms. Asked if they used one during their previous sexual encounter, only 46 percent of eighth-graders had, 53 percent of 10th-graders and 48 percent of seniors.
Current and new teachings
Current sex ed in grades 5-12 teaches how HIV and STDs are transmitted. It often also teaches sexual orientation, gender roles, gender identity and gender expression. It often teaches sexual abstinence and limiting sexual partners. But it also often teaches how to obtain condoms, how to use them, the importance of using them consistently and correctly, and how well they work.
The only required content in the new sex ed bill is:
• In grades K-3, instruction must be in social emotional learning — skills to do things like manage feelings, set goals and get along with others. There is no sexuality content required.
In grades 4-12, instruction must include:
• The physiological, psychological, and sociological developmental process;
• The development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills to communicate, respectfully and effectively, to reduce health risks and choose healthy behaviors and relationships based on mutual respect and affection, and free from violence, coercion and intimidation;
• Health care and prevention resources;
• Abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;
• The development of meaningful relationships and avoidance of exploitative relationships;
• Understanding the influences of family, peers, community and the media on healthy sexual relationships;
• Affirmative consent and recognizing and responding safely and effectively when violence or a risk of violence is or may be present, with strategies that include bystander training.
Senate Bill 5395 would require public schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education to students in grades 6-12 beginning in 2021-22 and for all public school students, including grades K-5, beginning in 2022-23. Instruction would need to be provided at least once to students in grades K-5 and twice to students in grades 6-12.
Schools would be required to notify parents that they are providing sex ed and make course materials accessible to parents, who could ask their child to be excused.
Local school boards can choose to provide additional education than what is required, but it must be medically and scientifically accurate.
Supporters of R-90 said the new teachings would not be costly; they are available free on the OSPI website and professional development for teachers is also free.
They said better education means better decisions about safe sex and would make kids less likely to partake in risky behavior.
However, Parents for Safe Schools encourages rejection of R-90. “Stop the early sexualization of our kids,” they said, adding materials would include graphic sexual subject matter.
One curriculum OK’d on the OSPI website that has received a lot of criticism but is not in the pamphlet is Rights, Responsibilities, Respect. It would teach very young students about body basics such as: vulva, nipples, anus and testicles. It would also teach how a vagina can adjust to the size of a penis.
“These are decisions that should be left to parents and local communities,” R-90 foes said in the pamphlet.
Opponents also said the program is just added costs when school budgets are being cut due to economic problems caused by COVID-19 restrictions. They said with so many students failing math, science and English state standards, why add another state mandate?
They said unelected bureaucrats created the curriculum, not local communities. And they said parents and schools are already doing an excellent job. HHS.gov reports that for the last 25 years Washington’s teenage birthrate dropped 69 percent. Erin’s Law, which passed in 2018, already addresses sexual abuse, prevention and online safety.