Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What would comprehensive sex ed look like in Spokane-area public schools? Here’s what might change if R-90 passes this November

Cherry trees bloom next to the Capitol building in Olympia, Washington, on March 23, 2020. Earlier this year, legislators passed a bill requiring that public schools teach comprehensive sex education. Those opposed to the rules gathered enough signatures to let voters decide the issue on the November ballot in the forum of Referendum 90.  (Elaine Thompson)

On the November ballot, Washington voters will decide if public schools should be required to teach comprehensive sexual health multiple times during a student’s K-12 education.

Supporters say the bill will give all Washington students equal access to sex ed, protect students from sexual abuse and harassment, and help them make healthier decisions.

Opponents say it’s so much more than that, arguing the bill doesn’t provide enough local and parental control and teaches young students graphic information about sex. However, the lessons taught in kindergarten through third grade only require social-emotional learning, according to the bill. Nothing about sex is taught.

So what will really change if Referendum 90 passes this November? The Spokesman-Review looked at current sex ed materials throughout the Spokane area, as well as bill requirements and OSPI guidelines.

Here’s what you need to know.


The controversial sexual health education bill passed both chambers of the state Legislature in March with only Democratic votes. Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law later that month.

Referendum 90 was put on the ballot after a grassroots effort gathered a record number of signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. More than 266,000 signatures – more than twice the minimum required – were filed with the Secretary of State’s office. The referendum will ask voters if they approve or reject the bill that requires age-appropriate sexual health education to be taught to students multiple times from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Voters will be asked to vote yes if they support the sex ed bill as passed, or no if they want to see it repealed.

What will it actually change?

If Referendum 90 passes and the law is affirmed, the biggest change will be that every school in Washington will now have to provide sexual health education.

With the new law, school districts still have the opportunity to decide their own curriculum, and parents still have the opportunity to opt their children out, according to the bill.

Current law mandates HIV/AIDS prevention education but allows school districts to decide if they want to provide sexual health education.

Most school districts already teach some form of sex ed, even if it is not considered “comprehensive,” as defined in the new law.

Currently, state law doesn’t require public schools to teach sex ed. But if they do teach it the curriculum must include:

  • The physiological, psychological and sociological developmental processes experienced by an individual.
  • The development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills to communicate and choose healthy behaviors.
  • Health care and prevention resources.
  • The development of meaningful relationships and avoidance of exploitative relationships.
  • Understanding of the influences of family, peers, community and the media throughout life on healthy sexual relationships.

If Referendum 90 passes, the only addition to that list is: “Affirmative consent and recognizing and responding safely and effectively when violence, or a risk of violence, is or may be present with strategies that include bystander training.”

Affirmative consent means a conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity as a requirement before sexual activity, as defined in the bill.

In addition to consent, the new law will require sex ed to be taught in multiple grade bands: once in kindergarten through third grade, once in grades 4-5, twice in grades 6-8 and twice in grades 9-12 .

Students in kindergarten through Grade 3 must have social-emotional learning that is consistent with standards set by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, according to the bill. In OSPI guidelines, social-emotional learning teaches how to identify and express feelings, how to achieve goals and how to act responsibly when interacting with others, among other guidelines.

If school districts decide their own curriculum, they must ensure it meets all requirements as laid out in the law, and they must allow parental and community input.

“We don’t have a final say,” said Laurie Dils, OSPI sexual health education program supervisor.

For some districts nothing will change based on the outcome of the November election, as their curriculum meets the proposed requirements. This means the district is already teaching social-emotional learning and consent in K-3. Other schools will have to rethink their curriculum – phasing it in over the next three years.

Spokane Public Schools

Spokane Public Schools will be unaffected by the new law, if it passes, as their curriculum currently meets the new standard, according to Heather Bybee, the district’s director of secondary curriculum.

Spokane students in kindergarten, first and second grades receive instruction in what the district calls “personal safety.” These early lessons focus on informing trusted adults of suspicious activity, both online and in the real world. One instructional animated video features a brightly colored robot named “Clicky” rapping a message to kids, encouraging them to say “no” to strangers who offer them gifts or ask to take them somewhere.

Students begin receiving instruction about gender identities and sexual orientation in fourth grade under a new set of materials adopted by the Spokane School Board of Directors in June. Instruction includes another animated video featuring various anthropomorphic fruits and vegetables comprising what’s called “a love salad,” with definitions not only for gay and lesbian orientations but also pansexual and asexual people.

There are currently no requirements for teaching about gender identities and sexual orientation at any grade level, Dils said, and that will remain the case if Referendum 90 passes.

Students in fourth and fifth grades are also asked to examine stereotypes about genders, and how the media – both social media and traditional entertainment like movies, TV and advertising – enforce those beliefs. In fifth grade, students are introduced to the topic of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and the ways in which the virus is and isn’t transmitted.

Sixth-graders learn about the differences between romantic and nonromantic relationships through scenarios.

Seventh-graders receive instruction on making positive health choices, including whether to have sex. The stages of pregnancy are first discussed. Instructors also review what health services are available to minors, including abortion services, with and without parental consent.

During a 15-day curriculum for eighth-graders, students are instructed about consent for sexual activity. Classroom discussion includes statistics on teenage access to pornography, and how the images and videos are distorted presentations of reality that perpetuate troubling gender stereotypes.

Abstinence is taught as the only method to eliminate the threat of sexual transmitted diseases, but eighth graders also receive instruction on what methods of contraception are available. During high school health courses (grades nine and up), students can choose whether to participate in a hands-on demonstration of properly using a condom, or they can opt out and order the written-out steps instead.

High school students watch a video called “Big Status Update” that dramatizes a teen pregnancy and its many demands through messages and status updates on the screen of a smartphone.

Central Valley

The Central Valley School District will likely only need to make minor changes to its curriculum if Referendum 90 passes, based on the 2018 OSPI survey and copies of the lessons obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

The biggest changes in Central Valley will likely be the frequency at which sex education is taught and the addition of consent and bystander training.

In kindergarten through third grade, Central Valley teaches a social-emotional learning program called Second Steps, according to communications director Marla Nunberg.

Similar to OSPI’s guidelines, the lessons often focus on dealing with emotions and taking care of mental health, Nunberg said. This is something that has been important during the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.

Human-growth and development lessons start in fourth grade, when students learn about puberty. Boys and girls are separated for their lessons and are shown videos on the physical and emotional changes that occur during puberty. Students are also taught how to make healthy choices, such as exercising and eating well.

In middle school, students are taught specific ways sexually transmitted diseases and HIV are transmitted, as well as the stages of pregnancy and the ways to reduce the risk of pregnancy and STDs. Middle schoolers are also taught responsible behaviors and practices, and how they influence relationships.

In high school, students learn how to further protect themselves from STDs and HIV, and the importance of making educated decisions when having sex.


The Mead School District will likely only need to make minor changes to its curriculum, including the frequency at which sex ed is taught and the addition of consent and bystander training.

The district may also need to start teaching social-emotional learning in kindergarten through third grade, but Dils said most teachers already teach some form of that, even if it’s not a specific curriculum.

“We would need to review the exact requirements and definitions in the new law, if passed, to ensure we are in alignment,” wrote Todd Zeidler, district public information officer, in an email.

Mead currently provides sexual health education once per year in grades 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, Zeidler said.

In fifth grade, students are taught the basics of puberty as well as HIV/AIDS transmission. Lessons also focus on decision-making and self-esteem. Teachers encourage students to wait until they are older to have sexual intercourse.

In sixth grade, students begin learning about human reproduction. Seventh grade focuses on making responsible decisions and preventing STDs.

In eighth grade, students learn about the importance of healthy relationships and receive a list of local resources and what they offer, such as contraceptives or testing.

Ninth grade lessons focus on human sexuality and the reproductive system, the effects of healthy relationships, prevention resources and how to protect yourself from criminal sexual behavior.


The Liberty School District may have to make a few changes to its curriculum, according to OSPI available data as well as documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

The school district currently teaches the KNOW curriculum, the state’s HIV/STD prevention curriculum, at least once in all grade bands. It also teaches a curriculum called Always Growing and Changing in later grade levels.

The use of the KNOW curriculum meets the requirements of the AIDS Omnibus Act, but it does not meet all of the requirements for the new law, Dils said.

“Because it addresses only HIV/AIDS prevention, it is not a comprehensive sexual health curriculum,” Dils wrote in an email.

Superintendent Brett Baum said the district is in the process of reviewing its materials and will be updating them if the new law is enacted.

Deer Park

The Deer Park School District’s curriculum does not meet the comprehensive sex ed requirements, Superintendent Travis Hanson said. It currently only teaches the state’s required HIV/AIDS prevention with students in Grades 5 through 12 using the KNOW curriculum.

The district was in the process of reviewing its current curriculum and adopting a more comprehensive one last year, Hanson said. However, once the Legislature began looking into a statewide mandate, Deer Park’s process paused.

If Referendum 90 does not pass, Hanson said the district will revisit the adoption process.


Multiple organizations, coalitions and committees formed to oppose the comprehensive sex ed bill, arguing that it allows for too much state control and includes graphic curriculum.

Mindie Wirth, chair of Reject Referendum 90 Campaign, led the movement to get the measure on the ballot.

“This issue has drawn bipartisan support as many people across Washington State grow increasing frustrated with the ongoing overreach into our daily lives by Olympia,” Wirth, of Bothell, wrote in an email. “Many individuals have stated that they have never been active on a political issue until getting involved in Referendum 90.”

Anniece Barker at A Voice for Washington Children said she was concerned about the bill when she realized most of her friends and family didn’t even know it existed.

When Barker, who is from Spokane, started to tell people about it, she said they were stunned.

Her biggest concern is a lack of parental and district control in decisions. Parents can still opt their children out and districts still have the opportunity to choose their own curriculum, but for Barker, it is not enough.

“For the state to come in and say they know better than parents about what is age appropriate, that in itself is inappropriate,” Barker said.

Barker said she is not against sex ed.

“Curriculum really isn’t the point about it,” she said. “It’s about giving parents the right to decide what’s right for their child.”

Kim Wendt, co-founder of Informed Parents of Washington, said the bill does not allow enough choices for school districts. She said the state allows districts to choose a curriculum, but that curriculum must be comprehensive, something she called a “radical philosophy.”

“There is no real choice here,” Wendt said.

For Wendt and Jennifer Heine-Withee, president of the Southwest Washington Parents Rights in Education, the biggest concern is the curriculum that is being taught. Although the bill states the K-3 requirement is only for social-emotional learning, Heine-Withee said she is worried including Grades K-3 in this bill will allow school districts to teach sexual health education to younger grades.

“You put a door there, and there’s going to be teachers going through it,” she said.

Wirth said school districts should be focusing on other programs instead of sexual health education, such as improving literacy and graduation rates.

“At a time when state and local budgets are facing massive deficits which threatened funding for basic programs, schools cannot afford to add an expensive new requirement, or design their own curriculum that meets those same state standards,” Wirth wrote in an email.


Supporters of the bill say it allows for more parental and local control than before and gives students across the state equal access to sex ed.

A coalition called Approve 90 formed this summer in support of the referendum. It includes parents, teachers and larger organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the Washington State Public Health Association and the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The coalition and its supporters argue that comprehensive sexual health education will make kids safer by making them less likely to take part in risky sexual behavior and by improving health equity across the state.

Erin Williams Heuter, of Lutheran Community Services Northwest in Spokane, said she believes comprehensive sex ed protects children from sexual abuse and harassment.

Survivors of sexual assault often experience shame and guilt, which leads to them struggling to talk about it, Williams Heuter said. Being able to speak about sex in general more comfortably will likely prevent sexual abuse.

“We want to make sure all kids have a safe person to talk to,” she said. “It really makes everybody safer.”

Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year and Spokane teacher, said in her experience, kids actually want sex ed taught in their schools.

She said teaching consent, which is the biggest change with the new bill, will make more students safer.

“How great for teenagers to know that they are the ones who get to be in control,” she said.

Courtney Normand of Planned Parenthood said there is still plenty of flexibility with the new law. Parents can opt out their children from the courses, and districts can decide their own curriculum.

Including K-3 in the bill has been controversial, but Normand said it’s important for kids to have social-emotional learning at an early age as it can lead to less abuse or harassment.

Dr. Matt Thompson, a pediatrician with the Kids Clinic in Spokane, said the bill is necessary to provide children with accurate information about their health and their safety.

“This allows students to have accurate information and make better decisions, and to be more aware of consequences of their actions,” he said.

Spokesman-Review reporter Kip Hill contributed to this report.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.