OLYMPIA — Comprehensive sex education could soon become mandatory in Washington state — for the first time.
After years of failed attempts, Democrats in the Washington Legislature finally passed a bill to make it a requirement across all public schools and grades in the state. But opponents are gearing up to challenge the law.
As the legislation heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature or veto, the relatively few school districts that currently teach no form of sex education will need to consider whether they’ll adopt existing curriculum on the topic — or create a version of their own. Districts already offering such lessons will need to think about the age-appropriate ways to expand them to earlier grades.
The move was met with resistance from Republicans in both the House and Senate, and some families and school board members who objected to new statewide standards for what they consider a local decision. More serious opposition may be in the offing: In Olympia on Friday morning, opponents gathered at the state Secretary of State’s Office to file paperwork on a referendum.
If Inslee signs the bill, school districts won’t have to do much in the near future. But starting in the 2021-22 school year, schools must begin providing students age-appropriate sex education at least twice between 6th and 8th grade, and twice again during high school.
By 2022-23, the law requires districts to expand this instruction to elementary school grades.
The extent to which Washington students receive sex education now is unclear, though state data offers some insight. A state survey of nearly 9,000 eighth-graders in 2018 found about two-thirds of them had been taught about abstinence and other ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). And this school year was the first time OSPI asked districts to self-report whether they offer sex education; only 19 school districts said that they do not.
Because the survey results were self-reported, though, there’s room for error. For instance, Mead School District north of Spokane reported that it doesn’t offer sex ed — but the district’s school board president Carmen Green said that’s untrue. Green and fellow Mead school board members oppose the sex education legislation, however, and sent a letter to Inslee this week urging him to veto it.
State education officials caution that the bill does not ask schools to teach students in younger grades, such as K-3, about sex.
This misconception has helped fuel the spread of “nasty” misinformation about the bill’s intentions and provisions, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the Office of Public Instruction. Young learners will receive lessons that teach them how to express their emotions, accurate names for their body parts, and how to find a trusted adult — a form of sexual abuse prevention.
“It’s just very basic. There’s nothing sexual about it,” Payne said.
School districts using curriculum that aligns with the legislation can continue using it or pick from roughly 80 options approved by state education officials, Payne said. Districts can also opt to work with parents and community groups to write their own, so long as it is age-appropriate, evidence-based and medically accurate.
The legislation asks schools to teach all students about the meaning of “‘affirmative consent” — clear and voluntary permission to engage in sex or other sexual activities — as well as offer bystander training, which teaches students how to intervene if they witness undesired advances or sexual harassment.
The measure likely won’t cause “huge” changes, Payne said, as all but a handful of Washington’s 295 districts already provide such instruction to middle and high school students.
The legislation’s merits may eventually be put to voters: On Friday, referendum citizen sponsor Mindie Wirth was joined at the Secretary of State’s Office by roughly a dozen Republican lawmakers, including House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville.
If the group can gather roughly 130,000 valid signatures within 90 days, that could put SB 5395 on the Nov. 3 ballot. Wirth said last year her son was in kindergarten — a grade she considers too early in life to receive sexual education. “Kids were taking naps and learning their numbers, and how to write their name,” she said. “It’s just not the right time, I think that there’s plenty of time later to focus on these topics.
But if it’s signed, the legislation would be a big win for its supporters, including Planned Parenthood and other advocacy groups.
“We’ve been engaged in this issue and working on this legislation since it began two years ago,” said Courtney Normand, Washington state director for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii. “It’s one of my most deeply felt issues in my career.”
Ella Jimenez, a 16-year-old junior at Tumwater High School who advocated for the bill, continued making calls to Inslee this week, encouraging him to sign it into law. “I hope our voices will be heard in that way,” she said.
The bill is particularly important for LGBTQ students, she said, a community she feels isn’t well-represented in education. She hopes the legislation also makes access to sex education instruction more uniform; within her own school, she said, some students receive instruction but others don’t.
“Those teachers who are uncomfortable talking about it, they will be forced to have to actually talk about it,” she said.