Sex ed is not controversial. The overwhelming majority of Washingtonians want young people to get comprehensive sex education — including parents and young people themselves.
Unfortunately, under our current state law, there’s no guarantee that any sex education is provided because school districts are not required to provide it. That’s why I support Senate Bill 5395, which passed the Senate and is stalled in the House. This bill requires all public schools to offer the information and skills young people need to protect their health and build their future, including education on consent and sexual assault prevention.
I really sound like my parents saying this, but “in my day” there was no sex education prior to 11th grade. And then, the education I had was focused on biology, and was strictly heteronormative. There was no discussion about gender identity, consent, abuse, very little on prevention of pregnancy or STIs. As a heterosexual young woman, you’d think that would have been enough, and for some maybe it was.
But for me that was not the case. As with many young people then and now, I did not have the confidence, insight or knowledge when my first serious relationship became abusive. Growing up in a loving family (white, middle class, Christian, honor roll, varsity athlete), I was shocked and unprepared to protect myself from experiencing physical and emotional abuse by a young man who was raised with those same privileges. I didn’t even know that domestic abuse was a thing. I did not recognize the warning signs or the patterns of abuse and isolation.
Could more comprehensive sexuality and relationship education have prevented this? I absolutely believe so. I was the young adult whom HB 5395 opponents believe they are protecting. I went on to raise an amazing son who I taught early the value of being an emotionally safe and respectful friend, to take personal responsibility for his sexual behavior and reproductive potential. Not all kids have that kind of open dialogue with a parent. His public education certainly did not play a role. His high school was nicknamed “Easy Valley” due to the high teen pregnancy rate. His sex ed was a big screen set up in the gym, with a video “aimed at scaring kids from touching each other.”
And over 20 years later, there is still a clear need for comprehensive, medically accurate education. I learned recently that a local high school had not long ago employed a conservative religious leader to teach their sex-education class, where abstinence was the focus, and who taught students that those who had already engaged in sex could be returned to a state of purity by undergoing “re-virgination.” Thankfully there are community members and educational leaders working to bring these districts in line with reality. However, our kids struggle daily with issues of LGBTQ+ shaming and apathy by their educators and peers. STI rates continue to climb annually, especially in Spokane County. Children are having children, and these high-risk pregnancies are further complicated by the use of meth and heroin in our rural and urban communities.
So yes, I am one of the majority of Washington voters, and a health care provider, who favors mandatory sex education that covers healthy relationships and communication skills, exactly what SB 5395 does.
The supposed “controversy” only comes from misinformation. Parents or legal guardians can still opt out their kids. Despite what opponents allege, there isn’t just one curriculum. There are an extensive set of guidelines and recommended curricula available, and a team at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction who have been supporting school districts in curriculum development and implementation for over a decade. This is not a partisan issue: Democrats, Independents and Republicans across Washington solidly favor this proposal.
None of our state’s children are immune from the risk of STIs, unplanned pregnancies, peer pressure, abuse from adults or future partners, and shame. Let’s give them the tools to protect their academic, social and reproductive futures.
I applaud our senators for passing a strong bill that will provide all public-school students in Washington with age-appropriate, medically-accurate sex ed regardless of which school district they live in. Unfortunately, the bill is being held up in committee by Rep. Sharon Tomiko-Santos and Rep. Frank Chopp, who are not taking seriously the life-altering challenges that students experience in Spokane and rural communities, where abstinence only education is often the focus. We can and must do better for Washington’s youth.
SB 5395 needs to move swiftly out of committee and on to the House floor for a full vote.
Lori Feagan, Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner
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