The Washington Senate approved a bill Wednesday requiring every public school to provide comprehensive sex education.
Senate Bill 5395 was approved 28-21 in a largely party-line vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The only crossover was Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who caucuses and typically votes with Republicans.
Legislators representing parts of Clark County stuck to party lines, with Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, supporting the bill and Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, opposing it.
None of the three county senators spoke during the short but intense debate prior to Wednesday’s roll call.
Democrats backed the legislation as a way to encourage healthy, consensual relationships, deter sexual violence and guard against sexual predators. The legislation, they said, includes an opt-out clause so parents can have their child excused from sex education.
“Comprehensive sexual education is about safety, first and foremost,” said Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn.
“It does not direct teachers to instruct students on how to have sex or how to promote sexual activity,” Wilson said. “The curriculum is age-appropriate, and it is adopted by local school boards.”
Republicans countered that the bill weakens the authority of parents and school boards and imposes edicts from the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, said many Republicans are not opposed to responsible sex education.
“We do have significant concerns about the state mandating sex education across all 295 of our school districts,” he said. “We feel that is a significant erosion of local control and that those closest to an issue like this are usually in the best position to make decisions.”
The House is considering a similar sex education bill, House Bill 2184, sponsored by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, chair of the House Education Committee.
Sex education has been a hotly contested issue in Battle Ground Public Schools.
The district had spent more than a year drafting 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.
Last week, 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.