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Comprehensive Sex Ed in Washington State

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On a mission to increase access to quality global education through innovation, technology, and storytelling. Currently: wondering, wandering, whiteboarding…

For years, I heard about my friends’ horror stories and waited for the dreaded Birds and Bees talk — but it never came. In my family’s traditional culture, abstinence is the only option: there was no need for the Bird and Bees talk. Even talk of periods was hush hush. I learned about periods in my 5th-grade human growth & development class. It opened up an entirely new branch of conversation with my mom, who told me to let her know immediately if I ever started bleeding from “down there.”

While my sexual health education wasn’t perfect, it was enough. I didn’t realize not everybody had the same experience. I was in 6th grade when a close friend started menstruating and had no idea what was happening to her body. As I got older, I realized with horror that many of my friends, still confused, conflicted and experimenting with relationships and sex, didn’t know about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV and AIDS. These experiences shouldn’t exist.

This is why the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5395, which requires all public school districts to provide comprehensive sexual health education that is evidence-informed, medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate and inclusive towards all students. The bill passed in a 56–40 party-line vote after nearly six hours of contentious debate, where House Republicans introduced over 200 amendments — many of which were pronounced dilatory, or intended to cause a delay. It is clear that SB’s comprehensive sex ed is a controversial issue. But the fact remains that youth ages 15–24 account for over half of the 20 million new STIs that exist in the United States every year. Decreasing this number is not controversial. According to the Center for Disease Control, comprehensive sex ed is the most effective method to decrease this number.

SB 5395 is designed with equity in mind, to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn and that no student — like my friend — would slip through the cracks in a world where gender-based violence, early and unintended pregnancies, STIs and STDs and more still pose serious risks to young peoples’ health and well-being. Democrats on the House floor shared moving stories of personal experiences with sexual abuse — some for the first time.

“I can’t even tell you the suffering that was going on in my family for generations,” said Representative Amy Walen (D-Kirkland). “For all the kids who don’t have such healthy families, those are the ones that it is our ultimate responsibility to watch out for.”

Nonetheless, House Republicans were unimpressed, opposing the legislation after citing concerns that comprehensive sex ed starting from Kindergarten wouldn’t be age-appropriate and that the implementation of the curriculum would detract from local control and parent/guardian input. While the age-appropriate concerns are misguided (it is perfectly appropriate to teach a Kindergartener how to say “no, I don’t want a hug” or ask for help), House Republicans have a legitimate concern around implementation.

Throughout the bill, there is no reference to family, student or community engagement and no mention of culturally-responsive practices.

Senator Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Woolley) said he was not opposed to the bill “in totality,” saying that “what is important is how we implement it.” Republican legislators may be concerned for their constituents who feel that sexual health should not be taught in school and are concerned that knowledge about sexuality will lead to premature/inappropriate behaviors. On a broader scope, some families have cultural values, beliefs and attitudes that make sex ed an inappropriate topic to discuss openly.

As Washington State moves forward in the implementation of SB 5395, it is more important than ever to engage families, students and communities in the planning and implementation of sex ed in a way that both meets state standards and respond to community values. Bringing people with different perspectives to the table will allow us to exchange new methods and pedagogy that can strengthen sex ed teaching practices.