Dissatisfied residents hold signs in protest of comprehensive sex education mandate. Cameron Sheppard/ WNPA News Service

Sex education in schools: What Referendum 90 is and what it isn’t

The referendum, if approved by voters this November, is unlikely to affect the Enumclaw School District much, school officials have said.

Aside from the fight for the White House and Washington’s gubernatorial race, another hotly contested measure on the upcoming election ballot is Referendum 90.

Referendum 90 will decide whether Senate Bill 5395 — colloquially known as Washington’s sex-education bill — will be enacted into law.

SB 5395 was passed by the state Legislature earlier this year. Approving the referendum would enact the law, which, in short, requires all school districts in the state to teach “comprehensive age appropriate sexual health education” by the 2022-2023 school year, according to the ballot measure.

Rejecting the referendum would keep SB 5395 from being made into law.

WHAT THE BILL ISN’T: MISCONCEPTIONS

There are several misconceptions Washingtonians may have about SB 5395, said OSPI’s Sexual Health Education Program Supervisor Laurie Dils. Two of the most common seem to be that the bill dictates what sexual education curriculum districts must teach, and that parents will be unable to pull their child from sex-ed classes.

“One of the biggest misperceptions is there is one curriculum that will be required for use by all districts,” she said. “That is just not true. The bill language is very clear that districts will continue to have control over curriculum decisions. They will need to use materials that either have been reviewed by OSPI and the Department of Health… or they can choose to review materials themselves, or they can choose to even develop their own materials.”

From the bill: “Public schools are encouraged to review their comprehensive sexual health education curricula and choose a curriculum from the list developed” by OSPI and the DOH. “Any public school may identify, choose, or develop any other curriculum if it complies with the requirements” of SB 5395.

A list of approved sex-ed curriculum, compiled by OSPI, shows districts can choose from four full curriculum and six supplemental curriculum for grades K-5; four full and 10 supplemental curriculum for grades 6-8; and nine full and eight supplemental curriculum for high schoolers.

Additionally, the bill doesn’t force students to undergo sexual education and allows for parents to review the curriculum.

“Any parent or legal guardian who wishes to have his or her child excused from any planned instruction in comprehensive sexual health education may do so,” the bill reads. “Any parent or legal guardian may review the comprehensive sexual health education curriculum provided in his or her child’s school.”

Finally, a third misconception is that young kids, kindergarten through third grade, will receive sex-ed — this is also inaccurate.

GRADES K-3: SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

According to SB 5395, “Comprehensive sexual health education for students in kindergarten through grade three must be instruction in social-emotional learning that is consistent with learning standards and benchmarks adopted by” OSPI.

In other words, “the bill is very specific that only social-emotional learning is required for students K-3,” Dils said.

But what, exactly, is social-emotional instruction, and how exactly do you measure it?

For that, OSPI has compiled list of standards, benchmarks and indicators that educators and families can use to help track the social-emotional learning of a student.

According to that list (which is available on OSPI’s website), sex-ed curriculum taught to students K-3 should cover ideas and topics like being able to “recognize, identify, and name my emotions, feelings, and thoughts,” “identify the importance to me of being a member of my cultural group,” “identify reasons why I may need to seek help from others,” and “accept people have different opinions and perspectives,” just to name a few.

However, while SB 5395 doesn’t require any sexual content be taught to K-3 students, districts may choose to go above and beyond the bill to teach some entry-level sex-ed. According to Dils, the state has guidelines about what is appropriate for various grade levels to learn about sexual health.

“While the only requirement is on social emotional learning, if districts do intend to teach sexual health content, it must be aligned to those health standards,” she said.

For grades K-3, the state’s health education standards include being able to “understand boys and girls have some body parts that are the same and some that are different” (kindergarten), “identify medically accurate names for body parts, including external reproductive anatomy,” (first grade), “understand living things can reproduce,” (second grade), and “understand humans can reproduce” (third grade).

Dils stressed, however, that these are simply guidelines for districts, schools and teachers to make sure any curriculum being taught to these grades — which is not required by SB 5395 — are age-appropriate.

“The grade level outcomes are there as examples of what comprehensive health education curriculum might look like, what a course of instruction might look like. They’re examples provided of what age-appropriate instruction might be,” she said. “But because every district is using different curriculum, and continue to use a different curriculum, not every single grade level’s outcome may be covered.”

GROWING UP: REQUIREMENTS FOR GRADES 4-12

According to SB 5395, comprehensive sex-ed for grades 4-12 must now include the following seven topics, to be taught at age-appropriate times:

• The physiological, psychological and sociological developmental process experienced by an individual;

• The development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills to communicate, respectfully and effective[ly], to reduce health risks and choose healthy behaviors and relationships based on mutual respect and affection, and free from violence, coercion and intimidation;

• Health care and prevention resources;

• Abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases;

• The development of meaningful relationships and avoidance of exploitative relationships;

• Understanding the influences of family, peers, community and the media throughout life on healthy sexual relationships;

• 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.

Many schools that already teach sex-ed likely already cover some or all of those bullet points.

“If districts are already providing sexual health education, most of those topics are already spelled out in the Healthy Youth Act and the 2005 guidelines for prevention that are referenced in the Healthy Youth Act,” Dils said. “There’s nothing in grades 4-12 that is different from what most districts are already providing.”

According to a voluntary, random survey by OSPI, an estimated 60 percent of Washington’s 295 school districts already teach what the department considers comprehensive sex-ed. It’s the other 40 percent that either teach partial sex-ed, or no sex-ed at all, that are the target of SB 5395.

Another survey, one that districts were required to complete, shows 99 percent of all school districts teach some form of sex-ed in the three grade groups (elementary, middle and high school). Only 17 districts out of the 285 that responded to the survey said they teach no sex-ed.

DEFINING ‘AGE-APPROPRIATE’

Like the standards that guide what sort of sex-ed K-3 students can receive, districts and schools have guidelines for grades 4-12. Again, these guidelines are not required by SB 5395, and districts can choose whether to teach any, every, or none of them.

For example, OSPI deems it appropriate for fourth-graders to learn how to define sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as defining healthy and unhealthy friendships and other relationships.

Fifth-graders, in turn, can begin learning about how “puberty prepares the body for reproduction,” what HIV is and how to prevent its transmission of the disease, and how reproductive systems function.

It’s in grade six that students may begin to learn about abstinence and other ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs.

In grade eight, students can learn to define consent and understand their own personal responsibility when it comes to sexual decisions.

Finally, high school students can learn how to evaluate the effectiveness of abstinence, condoms and other contraceptives, as well as how to use condoms and other means for preventing pregnancies and STDs.

For the full list of learning standards K-12, visit www.k12.wa.us/sites/default/files/public/healthfitness/standards/healtheducationk-12learningstandards.pdf.

HOW WILL ALL THIS AFFECT ESD?

SB 5395 won’t likely change how the Enumclaw School District does sexual education, officials have said.

According to minutes from the March 16, 2020, school board meeting, Director of Teaching and Learning Jill Burnes said the K-3 requirements stipulated in the sex-ed bill “is already done so in a variety of ways” in the district, including teaching kids about body image (which starts in second grade), stress management, expression of emotions, and harassment and bullying.

The only real difference when it came to sex-ed in grades 4-12, she continued, is the “affirmative consent” portion of the bill.

OSPI defines “affirmative consent” as “not just the absence of ‘no’… In earlier grades it might focus on hugs or horseplay, and in older grades on hugs, exchanging photos, or romantic or sexual contact. This approach reinforces and honors every student’s right to set healthy boundaries for themselves and for every student to feel their needs are respected in turn.”

According to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey, 12.3 percent of 8th-graders, 18.9 percent of 10th-graders, and 25.2 percent of 12th-graders had been forced into kissing, sexual touch, or intercourse when they did not want to, hence the new focus on teaching affirmative consent.

Burnes also stressed that parents can still excuse their children from sexual education lessons and review the district’s sex-ed curriculum.


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