OLYMPIA – In a move that Democrats said could help protect students from sexual violence and Republicans said would take away local control over schools, the Senate approved a bill requiring all public schools offer medically accurate, comprehensive sex education geared to children at all grade levels.
On a 28-21 party-line vote, the Senate approved the same bill – and heard some of the same arguments – as last year and sent it to the House, where it failed to get out of committee in 2019. The bill requires school districts to choose among comprehensive sexual health curricula approved by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or another program that meets key guidelines.
“Comprehensive sex education is about safety first,” Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, said and is not about teaching students how to have sex. “This is the right thing to do, and it’s the right time to do it.”
School districts would be able to choose the curriculum they consider most appropriate for their students, and parents could decide to have their children “opt out” of the course, Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said.
Parents who object shouldn’t have to opt out, said Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy. Instead, parents who want their children to take the course should have to opt in.
“It’s not an issue of not wanting our students to be safe,” Short said. “It’s really about how we do that and who makes the decision.”
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, warned of a “firestorm of opposition” from parents all over the state. In a survey of 10,000 parents by the OSPI, some 58% said “no” when asked if they thought comprehensive age-appropriate medically accurate sexual health education should be available for all students from kindergarten through Grade 12, he said, while only 38% said “yes.”
“I think the Legislature should spend a little more time listening to the people,” Padden said.
Katy Payne, communications director for OSPI, said those final numbers for the survey are correct, although there were wild swings of support or opposition from one day to the next. The survey was done online as a way to let people participate in the process, but there was no way to keep people from taking it multiple times.
“It wasn’t at all scientific,” Payne said.
Some Republicans said the state shouldn’t be requiring sex education in grades as low as kindergarten.
“What the heck does ‘age-appropriate’ mean?” asked Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge, read passages of proposed curriculum for kindergarteners that talked about personal space and how to recognize right and wrong actions and a lesson for first graders that taught “the importance of friendships.”
Under the proposal, comprehensive sexual health education should encourage healthy relationships based on mutual respect and affection, free from violence, coercion and intimidation. It should teach ways to identify and respond to behaviors that lead to sexual violence. It should emphasize voluntary, affirmative consent, and be consistent with the state’s health and physical education standards.
As currently written, the programs would be in place this September for grades six through 12, and by next September for kindergarten for grade 5, although that timeline, which was written last year, could be amended in the House.
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