Kids and sex education. It can be a volatile debate any time. This year, the debate is explosive. For the first time in U.S. history, an entire state (Washington) will vote to approve or reject a new statewide sex education program. Snohomish County is in the thick of the debate.
The core of the debate is this: Democratic lawmakers — who supported the bill during the 2020 session of the state Legislature — say the new law will help protect children from sexual abuse, disease and infection. Courtney Normand, Washington State Director for Planned Parenthood, asks, “Are we going to ensure that every child gets the real information and resources they need? We shouldn’t leave our kids in the dark.”
But Republicans and conservative groups say they believe the law will lead to “sexualizing” children and erode local school control. Mark Miloscia, executive Director of the Lynnwood-based Family Policy Institute, argues parents are being “ignored,” and that the new law embraces “values that are against Christian and most religions beliefs on sexuality and gender.”
When Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the Comprehensive Sex Education program in March, opponents mobilized statewide. They gathered 264,000 signatures for a referendum to overturn the program; the most signatures for a referendum in the last 40 years. The Secretary of State says two-thirds of the signatures came from church websites. Washington voters will decide the fate of Referendum 90 during the general election Nov. 3.
The state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction says a 2018 survey shows 93% of public schools already teach some form of sex education. The only mandated subject is HIV/AIDS classes that begin in fifth grade.
The state superintendent’s office says we need the new law because of “significant sexual health risks and sexual violence,” and cites increases in sexually transmitted disease, and more teens reporting unwanted sex contact and dating violence.
Here is what the new law mandates for all districts. (Read the full text in the voter’s pamphlet here.)
- Comprehensive Sex Education in every public school by 2022.
- The curriculum “must be medically and scientifically accurate.”
- The education must be “age-appropriate”, regardless of gender, race, disability or sexual orientation.
- It “must include information about abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
- “Abstinence may not be taught to the exclusion of other materials and instruction on contraceptives and disease prevention.”
- Teaching must include “affirmative consent” and “bystander training”.
- “Any parent/legal guardian can file a written request to have their children ‘excused’ from the program.
One flashpoint in the debate is that kindergarten through third graders will get age-appropriate “instruction in social-emotional learning” under the law. The state says that means “how to cope with feelings, set goals, get along with others”. The state insists there will be no sex education for those age groups.
Normand has kindergarten and third-grade daughters and says we must “support social and emotional development for children.” She adds kids that age need to begin to learn behavior that will keep them safe from future abuse or assault.
But, Miloscia insists including the K-3 kids is one step to “sexualizing children,” that the curriculum will include “indoctrination certain to harm our children.”
Another flashpoint: The new law requires that “affirmative consent” be taught to older students. It is defined as a “conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity as a requirement before sexual activity” — in other words, “clear permission regarding willingness to engage in sex.” Affirmative consent will be taught from grades 4-12.
Opponents argue that would simply “encourage” children to become sexually active. The schools would teach “what’s a proper way,” says Miloscia, “to ask people to have sex.” Family values should instill that, he says, not schools.
“Do you really buy that?” asks Normand. “That attitude does not respect our children… the fear that (this new law) invites sex is not supported. Kids wait longer to have sex if they have sex education.” She cites research that shows one-third of all students sexually assaulted are under 12 years old and that 90% of them know their assailant.
What the Edmonds School District teaches
The 22,000 students in the Edmonds School District currently start sex education at the fifth grade. The curriculum has been in place for a number of years.
Kindergartners through third graders get what the district calls “social and emotional learning” lessons, in line with current standards, which teach managing feelings, setting goals and getting along with others. There is no sexual component, said Dr. Rob Baumgartner, Executive Director of Student Learning.
In the fifth and sixth grades, students are taught the FLASH (Family Life and Sexual Health) curriculum, developed in King County. Middle and high school students participate in what’s called the KNOW’ program, developed by the state to teach about HIV/AIDS.
Baumgartner says if the state law is upheld after the referendum vote, Edmonds would not have to change very much in its curriculum. The one change he sees would mean adding lessons for fourth graders. The K-3 curriculum, says Baumgartner would remain virtually the same as it is now.
Edmonds parents can opt their children out of sex education programs by asking the district. Baumgartner says, however, that “the overwhelming majority” of fifth- through 12th-grade students do take the classes. Parents can also review the elementary programs on the Edmonds School District website. To access the middle and high curriculums, call your school and they will provide a password to that page on the website.
The sex education debate has ramifications beyond Referendum 90. Maria Espinoza, a mother and teacher, is running for office for the first time. She is challenging incumbent State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, largely because of the new sex education program and concern parents will lose local control of districts. Under Reykdal, the superintendent’s office helped develop the law. And some state lawmakers face opponents whose ads challenge them over their support of the Comprehensive Sex Education law.
Opponent Mark Miloscia argues if the law is not defeated, it “turns children against their faith and their family”and “it is the end of public schools if that (the law) happens.”
Supporter Courtney Normand insists the opposition’s campaign is “harmful… intentionally inflammatory, done to make the debate sensational.” She says one of the state’s core values is how it protects the health and safety of its children.
Referendum 90 is the only state referendum on the ballot for Nov. 3.
— By Bob Throndsen