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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Public schools in Washington would be required to teach sex education in all grades under bill approved by state Senate

OLYMPIA – Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, argues for more local control of sex education curriculum during a debate in the Senate Wednesday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
By Ryan Blake The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – All public schools in Washington would have to offer sex education programs, starting in kindergarten, under a bill passed Wednesday by the Senate.

School districts would be required to adopt comprehensive, medically accurate policies for sexual health education for all grades by the 2021 school year, according to the bill, which was sent to the House on a party-line vote.

Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said the lack of sexual health education is an epidemic in the state.

“Many students are just not taught about consent,” she said. “Many students … don’t have the information they need to make safe decisions, the information they need to handle difficult situations. Sometimes it’s about knowing you have permission to say no.”

Republicans objected to a statewide requirement for sex education, which districts can currently choose but is not mandatory. They offered a dozen amendments, all but one of which failed, over the course of a debate that lasted nearly two hours.

“I believe it’s an abuse of power by the Legislature to pursue this and mandate this for kindergarteners,” Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said at one point in the debate. Wednesday was a “historic day in a bad way.”

“Let’s return this to our local school districts,” Padden said at another point. “People do not like Seattle values values jammed down their throat.”

Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, agreed. School districts already have policies designed to provide those safe spaces and should be allowed to adopt the curriculum they need, she said.

Padden’s amendment failed, as did a separate one from Short to exclude children in kindergarten through grade 5. The state shouldn’t require students of an “inappropriate age” to receive sexual health education, she said.

“This is insane,” she added.

But younger students would benefit from age-appropriate sexual education, Wellman said. The bill would not only ensure children learn about consent, but understand they are not bound to an assumed gender role, she said.

“Little kids have a right to know they don’t have to let other people touch their bodies,” she said.

The bill would require school districts to choose from a number of approved curricula, and Wellman said parents can review all the materials their district selects.

One amendment that requires schools to grant a parent’s request for their children to opt out of the program passed.

The bill is essential for student safety and does not take anything away from parents, said Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, the bill’s sponsor: “Information is power.”