Washington Democrats Push Ahead With Sex Education Legislation


Washington lawmakers are proceeding with legislation requiring public school districts to provide comprehensive sexual health education to all students by the 2022-23 school year.

The House Education Committee voted 9-8 along party lines Thursday for a revised version of Senate Bill 5395, which the Senate approved in the second week of the session.

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, took the lead in rewriting the bill. Prior to the committee's final vote, Stonier said the bill responds to concerns that school districts need more time to prepare a curriculum and strengthens language that allows parents to pull their children out of sex education.

The bill will ensure students receive information about consent and coercion, disease prevention and healthy relationships, she said.

"Students in my community have asked us to stand up against normalizing sexual assault," Stonier said. "They have asked us to understand that, as an LGBTQ+ teen, when you do not see yourself reflected in the learning environment around you, it does far more harm than good. ... And I would say the suicide rates in those teens are proof that is the case."

Republicans offered a number of amendments. All but one were rejected, largely on party line votes.

That amendment, proposed by Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, and approved unanimously, requires schools to notify parents or guardians that the school will provide sex education and offer electronic access to all course materials.

Republicans also proposed amendments prohibiting schools from offering sex education to students before seventh grade, using role playing in sex ed instruction or bringing in guest speakers. Another defeated amendment would have reversed the legislation's default setting by requiring parents to opt their children into sex education, instead of allowing them to opt out.

Six of the committee's eight Republicans signed a minority report making a "do not pass" recommendation. Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, signed a minority report making no recommendation.

Age appropriate

Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, said medically accurate, age appropriate sex education is important.

"My biggest concern is all around age appropriateness," he said. "What I had proposed was, under sixth grade, prohibiting instruction around intercourse, sexually transmitted infections and contraception."

Dave Mastin, executive director of government relations for Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, posted an online video about the legislation that makes three points:

--Sex education is not new to Washington schools and has been taught for decades.

--The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, along with the Washington State Department of Health, reviews sex education curricula, but it does not require districts to adopt state curricula.

--Parents can review sex education curricula and decide whether they want their children to opt out.

Battle Ground

Battle Ground Public Schools has been the epicenter in the ongoing debate over sex education.

The district spent more than a year drafting a curriculum and tweaking policy around what to teach students before reversing itself, first eliminating a requirement that sex education be taught, except for fifth-grade lessons on puberty and human development. Then, in response to teachers who said they were having to strip lessons out of their curriculum, the board added an exemption for elective classes.

In January, the district approved an elective version of its high school health class that will include a sexual health education curriculum developed by the district as well as lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation, birth control methods (including abstinence), sexually transmitted diseases and consent.

Harris had encouraged his Republican colleagues to keep an open mind prior to the session's start. During last week's committee meeting, Harris offered an unsuccessful amendment authorizing school districts to provide sex education, rather than requiring them to do so.

In Battle Ground Public Schools, parents of 25 percent of students have opted out of sex education, Harris said. He predicted that percentage will increase to 30 or 40 percent if SB 5395 becomes law.

"If they opt out of this program, that in a way is tragic, because now they are going to have no sexual education at all, and that is not what I wanted," he said. "I don't think that is what any of us wanted. So I just wish we could have amended this a little tighter, and I could have been a yes."

Next steps

SB 5395 has a ways to go before it becomes state law. Given the high level of public interest and political opposition, Republicans could offer additional amendments when the legislation makes it to the House floor.

Presuming it's approved there -- Democrats hold a solid 57-41 majority in the House -- the Senate would be asked to concur with the House's changes. If it does not, the differences between the two versions likely would be ironed out in a conference committee including members from both the Senate and House, followed by each chamber voting on what would be a third version.

All work on sex education legislation needs to be completed before the 2020 session ends March 12.