Voters throughout the state will decide in November whether to let stand or repeal a comprehensive sexual health education bill passed by the state Legislature earlier this year.
Referendum 90 asks voters whether Senate Bill 5395 — which was passed by the state Legislature in March — should be enacted.
The legislation, which is suspended pending the outcome of the election, would require school districts to begin offering “comprehensive sexual health education” to students of all ages.
For all grade levels, parents and guardians would be able to opt their students out of the lessons, the law states.
What “comprehensive sexual health education” means varies by grade, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
For example, in grades K-3, curriculum could focus on what is called social emotional learning, where students learn about concepts such as self-esteem and decision-making.
“(Social emotional learning) provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others,” OSPI states.
For students of that age, there are no requirements to cover topics about sexuality, OSPI states.
If Referendum 90 is approved — meaning the Senate Bill becomes law — the parts that deal with K-3 students would be required by the 2022-2023 school year, according to OSPI.
For older students, Senate Bill 5395 builds largely upon the Healthy Youth Act of 2008, which states schools that teach sexual health “must assure” students receive “medically and scientifically accurate” sexual health information that is, among other things, age appropriate; appropriate for all students regardless of gender, race, disability status or sexual orientation; includes information about abstinence as well as other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Currently, state law requires students receive HIV/STD prevention education annually starting in at least the fifth grade and continuing through high school, OSPI states. That requirement would continue.
Senate Bill 5395 would require students also learn about the topics of “affirmative consent” and “bystander training.”
“They are included in this legislation as a way for schools to combat the high rates of unwanted sexual contact experienced by youth in our state,” OSPI states.
According to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey, 12.3% of eighth graders, 18.9% of 10th graders, and 25.2% of 12th graders have been forced into kissing, sexual touch or intercourse, OSPI states.
According to OSPI, affirmative consent is “an approach to giving and receiving consent that includes clear, voluntary, enthusiastic permission to engage in any activity. It is not just the absence of ‘no.’”
For younger students, that could mean things such things as horseplay, hugging and personal boundaries, OSPI states.
According to OSPI, bystander training “teaches students how to safely intervene when they see bullying, sexual harassment or unwanted sexual activity,” OSPI states.
While the legislation outlines what needs to be taught and by when — and OSPI has available curricula for districts to utilize — local school boards will choose which curriculum to use, meaning they have some leeway in choosing options that best fit their students and families.
Some school districts have yet to explore those options, partly because the legislation is on hold pending the outcome of the election and partly because it was passed days before the COVID-19 pandemic caused schools to shut down and then rethink their fall plans.
At least one Skagit County school district, however, says that regardless of whether the referendum passes or fails, it will be ready.
“If people look at what it’s asking us to do, it’s really not a big change,” said Mount Vernon School District Executive Director of Categorical Programs Dan Berard.
He said the district has in the past few years updated its health curriculum, he said.
In addition, partly because of stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, the Mount Vernon district has increased the amount of attention it places on social emotional learning across the board, especially for its younger students, Berard said.
“What I think is most important for people to understand is that the Mount Vernon School District is committed to clearly communicating with our families what is being taught and when it is being taught,” Berard said. “If a parent is concerned about our health standards or our health curriculum, connect with the health teacher in your child’s school and ask to review the materials and the curriculum. Have that conversation with the health teacher.”