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Editorial: Allow kids accurate information on sexual health

A bill, now in the House, would set standards for K-12 education on sexual health and safety.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Certainly, it’s good news that birth rates among Washington state’s teens are on the decline.

Data collected by the state Department of Health show pregnancy rates for females ages 18 and 19 dropped from 53.2 pregnancies per 1,000 females in 2013, to 40.5 per 1,000 in 2017. Likewise for girls ages 15 to 17, the pregnancy rates fell from 14.6 per 1,000 teens to 9.2 per 1,000 in 2017.

Those rates follow trends similar to national figures , reported by the federal Office of Adolescent Health that found the live birth rate had fallen steadily to 19 births for every 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in 2017, from a high of 60 births per 1,000 teens, in 1990.

Those numbers, however, can’t be taken as proof that the status quo is working just fine regarding how and where youths are getting their information about reproductive health, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, relationships and related issues.

That’s because other numbers argue against sticking with the status quo and leaving it to the state’s 295 individual school districts to determine what’s being taught in K-12 classes.

The same state Department of Health data, collected for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, shows that rates for gonorrhea and chlamydia have increased over the same five-year period, 2014-18. Among males, 15 to 19, there were 8,359 cases of chlamydia reported statewide in 2014, jumping to 13,149 in 2018; for females, 15 to 19, there were 18,165 cases in 2014, increasing to 21,584 in 2018. For gonorrhea, the cases for males nearly doubled from 3,663 to 7,291 in those five years; for females, the numbers increased from 2,495 to 3,918 cases. Although representing far fewer cases, reports of syphilis also increased.

Over the same period, teens also reported an increase in unwanted sexual contact and dating violence.

Students need better information than they are getting to protect their health, safety and futures, and public schools provide the second-best source — after parents — for reliable and approachable information. But it is not offered broadly enough to benefit all students in the state.

Current state law requires only that students, starting no later than fifth grade, get education each year on HIV and AIDS. Otherwise, school districts and their elected boards are allowed to determine what, if any, sexual health education is offered.

For the second year in a row, the state Senate has passed legislation, requested by state Superintendent Chris Reykdal, and forwarded it to the House. Senate Bill 5395 would require every school district to provide sexual health education in their schools, selecting from a list of state-approved curricula or reviewing materials to meet state standards. The education would need to be medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, equally address all students and include information about abstinence and other methods of birth control and disease prevention.

Other requirements would instruct students on healthy relationships based on mutual respect and affection, free from violence or coercion; on identifying behaviors that can lead to sexual violence; and provide guidance on affirmative consent.

This is not, as some have called it in the past, “sex ed for kindergartners.”

“This is about making sure younger children know what kind of touching is inappropriate, whether by peers or predators,” the Senate bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, said in a release. “It’s about helping older students recognize and resist abusive or coercive behavior. It’s about teaching all children to respect diversity and not to bully others.”

Further, Wilson has said, the intent is not to promote sexual activity among youths or instruct them on how to have sex; the approved curriculum, already in use in some districts, focuses on health, safety and respect for others.

Nor should parents view this as an attempt to exclude them from their authority and responsibility regarding what their children are taught. At all grade levels, parents can choose to opt their child out of the class sessions. And they will have access to the materials used at each grade level so they can make their own decisions. For some parents, this could provided a welcome starting point for their own conversations with their children.

Absent the guidance from parents and trusted teachers, youths will look elsewhere — as they always have — to fill the vacuum of knowledge regarding sexual and relationship issues. Now, however, that information — regardless of its accuracy or appropriateness — is easily found on smartphones and home computers.

We trust our children’s teachers to handle a range of subjects. Issues related to children’s health, safety and self-respect deserve time and discussion in the classroom as much as any subject.

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