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Editorial: Teach sexual health education in all schools

The additional and reliable information schools can provide will help youths make healthy decisions.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s a paradox that does prompt some head-scratching: As teen birthrates declined and use of contraceptives increased from 2007 to 2014, formal sex education in U.S. public schools actually was in decline between 2006 and 2013.

For example, in 2016, there were 20.3 births for every 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in the U.S., a rate that had steadily declined from nearly 60 births per 1,000 females in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health.

A 2016 editorial in the Journal of Adolescent Health, concluded that the two trends suggested youths were getting their information about birth control options and condoms from somewhere else other than sex education classes. Instead, the editorial said, they may be getting their information from the internet and social media so prevalent in their lives.

Assuming those trends have continued, why then the urgency to require comprehensive sex education programs in all school districts statewide, as outlined in legislation that passed the state Senate late last month and is now under consideration by the House?

Here’s the urgency, according to a 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

40 percent of high school students reported having had sexual intercourse;

Of 30 percent who said they had had sex in the previous three months, 46 percent did not use a condom the last time they had sex, 14 percent used no method of birth control, and 19 percent had used alcohol or drugs before their last sexual encounter;

7 percent said they had been physically forced to have sex when they did not want to;

Youths aged 13 to 24 accounted for 21 percent of the new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. in 2016; and half of the 20 million new reports of sexually transmitted diseases were among youths aged 15 to 24.

It’s encouraging to see declines in recent years for teen pregnancy rates and increases in the use of condoms for contraception and disease prevention, but it’s risky behavior to continue to trust the internet and social media with the responsibility of providing accurate and reliable information.

Providing such curricula in public schools would offer youths the opportunity to confirm or challenge what they’re hearing elsewhere.

Some, but far from all, are hearing that in a classroom setting. Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, who requested the legislation, testified at an earlier Senate hearing that about 60 percent of state’s school districts provide some form of sex education, although it can vary in what subjects are covered.

Senate Bill 5395, which has a public hearing before the House education committee this morning, would require all schools in the state to provide comprehensive sexual health education that includes information on abstinence and other methods of preventing pregnancies and STDs; is age-appropriate; encourages healthy relationships free of violence, intimidation and coercion; helps youths to recognize and respond to sexually violent behavior; and emphasizes affirmative consent to voluntary sexual activity.

The legislation passed the Senate on a nearly party-line vote, 28-21, with one Democrat joining Republicans in opposition.

But objections to the bill appear based more in fear than reason.

As has been the case at school districts that offer the education, parents will be able to opt their children out of the classes. And while lessons will be taught at all grade levels — kindergarten through 12th grade — this is not, as Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, feared during Senate debate, “sex ed for kindergartners.”

Said the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, regarding younger students: “We’re talking about things like touch; what’s good touch, what’s bad touch.”

As with everything taught in the classroom, it’s all geared to the particular age.

As they do now, school districts would continue to have flexibility in adopting specific curricula, but will be required to use review tools to ensure the materials are based on science and have been shown as being effective. At least 159 schools, more than half of 293 schools responding to an 2016 OSPI survey, reported using curriculum called Family Life and Sexual Health, developed by Public Health Seattle and King County that is used in fourth- through 12th-grade, information that’s science-based and from a knowledgeable source.

None of this removes the authority nor the responsibility for parents to fully participate in their children’s education regarding personal values and their sexual and emotional health.

But without a statewide requirement and more direction on what topics ought to be covered and what material to use in the classroom, the information that is available to youths — that which informs their decisions about their physical and emotional health — could be incomplete, unvetted and left to chance.

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