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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Survey says no to comprehensive sex education, OSPI says yes

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The results are in, and the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s survey says, in short, “No.”

That was the reply from 58% of about 10,000 respondents asked if comprehensive sexual health education should be mandatory in public schools. So, naturally, bills were quickly filed and a hearing held in Olympia this week on House Bill 2184 to make comprehensive sexual health education mandatory for grades K-12.

That’s a hopelessly ironic fate for a bill whose supporters emphasized was necessary to teach affirmative consent.

During the House Education Committee Jan. 16 hearing, which is available at tvw.org, five members of OSPI’s Sexual Health Education work group presented an overview of their final report, noting they had reached consensus with “discussions but no disagreements,” except over whether to include K-3 in the mandate.

“We trust OSPI,” said Principal Audra Goodman from the Franklin-Pierce School District.

Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, noted if the work group had no disagreements “that’s a problem, easy to surround yourself with those who agree.”

Geographic and professional diversity was required in the authorizing legislation, viewpoint diversity was not. Members of the work group were recommended for appointment by the Washington State School Directors Association, the Association of Washington School Principals, the Washington Education Association and the state Department of Health. Two parents represented the Washington Parent Teacher Association and one represented the Special Education Advisory Council.

House Bill 2184 and a companion bill in the Senate would change current law to make comprehensive sex ed, commonly referred to as CSE, a state mandate instead of remaining under local school board discretion. OSPI has already set standards for qualifying curriculum. Cultural appropriateness and parent empowerment are not OSPI considerations.

Teen-Aid Inc. of Spokane was awarded the federal Title V sexual risk avoidance grant for Washington in 2018 and was not included in the stakeholders invited to the Sexual Health Education work group. In compliance with terms of their grant, Teen-Aid contacted 311 districts in the state in the summer of 2019 to locate underserved Washington students and received responses from 215 districts.

Currently, about one third of school districts are using a CSE curriculum and another third provide sexual health education that does not meet OSPI’s definition of “comprehensive,” according to Teen-Aid. A third of districts contacted did not respond. They were asked what curriculum was being used for high school and for middle school and how many students were opted out by their parents.

The rationale for making CSE a mandate on all public schools is equity. OSPI’s goal is for all children in the state to have access to the same information. But there’s a problem with using a mandate to meet the goal.

When students are opted out of CSE, students end up with less information, according to testimony from MaryAnne John, Spokane. In a phone interview later John said “Of the schools (Teen-Aid) talked to which were not yet teaching CSE but were aware of the proposed law, parents were already talking about pulling their kids out of public school altogether.”

“ Of the schools we talked to which were not yet teaching CSE but were aware of the proposed law, parents were already talking about pulling their kids out of public school altogether,” said MaryAnne John, of Spokane, who testified at hearing.

No one testified in favor of ignorance. The pro and con disagreements center around whether the OSPI standards are medically accurate and age-appropriate. Those opposed to the mandate want to empower parents to make the call and don’t trust OSPI.

Not without good reason. OSPI’s most popular CSE curriculum called FLASH recommends integrating the following vocabulary list into the language arts lessons for fourth graders: “cell, cervix, clitoris, Cowper’s gland, ejaculate, epididymis, fallopian tube, fertilize, genitals, labia, ovary, ovulate, prostate gland, scrotum, semen, seminal vesicle, testes, urethra and vas deferens.”

There is such a thing as too much information for a 9-year-old. Opting students out of sex ed won’t help them pass language arts class.

John Schrock of Airway Heights also made it to Olympia to testify, saying parents are the best teachers of these matters at all ages and we need empowered parents. Teen-Aid’s LeAnna Benn, of Spokane, testified she began conversations on sexuality education in 1979 and is not opposed to it, but also emphasized the need to acknowledge protective factors and to empower parents.

Strong parent-child communication and the presence of a father in the family are protective factors for all kinds of risky behavior. It’s why the old DARE model of accurate vocabulary and “Just Say No” training in drug abuse resistance education has been replaced with strengthening families and focusing on healthy community norms in current substance abuse prevention. Yet empowering parents and setting positive norms for healthy sexual behavior is not part of OSPI’s comprehensive curriculum standards.

And that’s why 58% said no to the proposed mandate. Perhaps OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykdal needs a refresher on no means no.

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