Legislation that adopts statewide standards for K-12 comprehensive sexual health education earned its final approval in the state House and Senate last week and now awaits the governor’s expected signature.
But there’s work ahead for the state’s 295 school districts — at least those that have yet to adopt curriculum that meets the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s standards for all grades — as well as the parents of children in public schools. Not all parents will be happy about that work, or the task that the state has mandated to ensure all students have access to age-appropriate curriculum.
But, as we highlighted earlier this year, while the incidence of teen pregnancies has decreased in recent years at both state and national levels, the opposite is true for sexually transmitted diseases. The most recent data from the state Department of Health shows that between 2014 and 2018 disease rates for youths 15-19, boys and girls, increased for gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis. The same evaluation also saw increased reports of unwanted sexual contact and dating violence among youths.
At the same time, horrific stories of grooming and sexual abuse of children by adults in positions of trust — many of which go back decades — continue to come to light.
All of this points to the greater need for children and youths to have the information they need to guide their behavior and give them the insight and courage to say no to unwanted contact, whether from fellow students or adults.
The legislation gives school districts the option to choose curriculum from a list of programs already vetted by OSPI or develop or identify other curriculum, as long as it meets state standards for being age-appropriate, medically and scientifically accurate and that includes information about abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Requirements for the curriculum will be phased in, first for sixth-grade through 12th-grade students for the 2021-22 school year, then expanding to all grade levels by 2022-23.
Most of the objections regarding the legislation heard from parents and Republican lawmakers have ranged from panicked worries to sincere concern for the rights of parents to determine what’s best for their kids. The more overwrought claims — equating specific curriculum with pornography and “sex ed for kindergartners” — are best reviewed by parents who can make their own decisions regarding the classroom materials and subjects covered as well as the state’s standards, as the law provides.
Some Republicans had objected to the legislation on the charge that it takes the decisions regarding curriculum away from local school districts and their elected boards. Just the opposite is true. Those decisions regarding curriculum have been left to individual districts and boards; the requirement is only that the curriculum meet certain standards. And parents have the final say regarding what portions of the classroom discussions their children will participate in, if any at all.
It doesn’t get more local than that.
As school districts adopt curriculum, parents can review what is being proposed or what already has been adopted for the classroom and can share concerns or approval with their school board. Parents also can review the current standards for curriculum, approved by OSPI in 2016, starting on page 28 of the document available at tinyurl.com/OSPI-health-ed-standards.
The legislation also requires school districts to inform parents when sexual health instruction is scheduled and how they can review the classroom materials.
Even parents who don’t have concerns about the curriculum would do well to review the materials, as it will help them prepare for the questions that may follow from their children.
The rights of parents regarding the health and education of their children are not to be taken lightly, but there are times when government needs to assert its responsibility to protect the people.
Similar concerns arose last year — in the wake of a measles outbreak in southwest Washington — as state lawmakers considered and ultimately voted to end parents’ ability to refuse the measles vaccine for their children for personal reasons. Understanding that some object to vaccines, lawmakers had to balance personal beliefs with the state’s responsibility to protect public health.
Noting the increasing rates of sexually transmitted disease among youths and the necessity to ensure that children have a full understanding of how to protect themselves from predatory behavior, the state has a role to play in providing guidance for curriculum that educates children on subjects crucial to their health and well-being.