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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Mandatory sex education should focus on reducing risks, not avoiding consequences

Even with little publicity outside of insider circles, the Sexual Health Education Work Group survey on mandatory comprehensive sex education already had over 8,000 online responses as of Thursday morning. The survey window closes at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday.

The group was formed by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction at the direction of the Washington Legislature. It’s one of several work groups tucked into the bowels of the state budget, and the only one without any dollars attached. OSPI was directed to squeeze funding from “within amounts provided in this section” for other work groups.

OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykdahl is unlikely to complain about the unfunded mandate. According to Laurie Dils, OSPI sexual health education program supervisor, Reykdahl sees it as an equity issue. No district should be able to opt out, offering every student “a whole child approach to being physically and emotionally healthy” that includes age-appropriate comprehensive sex education.

Senate Bill 5395 has already been filed for the 2020 legislative session to set statewide standards. No one would argue against physically and emotionally healthy children, but finding consensus on what is age-appropriate and culturally appropriate is a challenge.

OSPI is pushing a curriculum standard focused on avoiding consequences rather than reducing risk, according to LeAnna Benn, director of Teen Aid. “Research for over 25 years has demonstrated the importance of family involvement in this area of education,” Benn said.

Teen Aid has provided a medically accurate and evidence-based curriculum to school districts for over 30 years. Now it offers a web-based curriculum directly to families called The Alternative Project for grades 8-12. Development of the online program was funded by a Federal Title V Sexual Risk Avoidance Education grant.

Raja Tanas, professor emeritus of sociology at Whitworth University, was the evaluator of the original curriculum from 1988 to 2010. Testing on effectiveness for changing attitudes and behaviors “consistently showed statistically significant positive results, meaning students became more likely to make healthy choices about sex.”

For Tanas, it’s not about waiting for marriage but “waiting until old enough to make wise decisions.” State-approved comprehensive sex ed curriculum treats all behaviors as normal and abstinence as a form of contraception instead of part of a healthy lifestyle for young people, according to Benn.

Teen Aid’s original school-based program is not on the approved list as a comprehensive curriculum because it “does not normalize underage sexual activity,” Benn said. “OSPI wants to see promotion of contraceptives and how to get them without parental permission, not just medically accurate information on what they are.”

We don’t use that approach with other risky behaviors. Why ban fruity-flavored vaping cartridges when the teacher is handing out flavored rubber aids for safer oral sex to middle and high school students? It’s the logical result of a focus on “skills-based instruction,” as the Senate bill refers to it.

And early sexual activity is risky, associated with negative behaviors including increased alcohol and drug use. Comprehensive sex education focused on the mechanics is like a financial literacy course focusing on how to shop for the best bargains to satisfy every urge. The key to financial and sexual health is deferred gratification and long-term decision making.

The online survey is the “last chance to impact this bill before it walks straight through the Legislature,” according to Benn. It is only available online, and there was no general news release. OSPI put the word out on social media and notified the organizations represented in the work group.

The usefulness of the results will be limited. Participants are self-selected, and anyone can submit more than one response. If you live in the Inland Northwest, don’t let Question 3 throw you. OSPI wants to know where you live. The seven choices are Puget Sound Region, Northwest, Northeast, Southwest, Southeast, Central or outside Washington.

Asked why no Spokane Region, OSPI said the difference between northeast and southeast is probably not critical. We want to “get the best data but not overwhelm folks with options. … It’s the psychology behind offering too many options for something,” according to Katy Payne, OSPI director of communications.

Yet there were eight choices under gender, including “something else fits better.” That might have been a good option for Spokane.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Jan. 17, 2020 to correct the number of Senate Bill 5395.

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