The Washington Senate on Saturday voted to send legislation mandating comprehensive sexual health education for all students by the 2022-2023 school year to the governor’s desk.
By a party-line vote of 27-21, senators approved an amended version of Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5395, which has faced significant scrutiny since it was introduced last year. Democrats advocated for the legislation as a way to curb sexual violence while promoting healthy relationships. Republicans, meanwhile, suggested it would deny local school districts the chance to make the best decisions for their communities, and could expose children to inappropriate content.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, voted in support of the legislation, while Republicans Ann Rivers of La Center and Lynda Wilson of Vancouver voted against the bill.
Studies show access to comprehensive sexual health education improves health outcomes for children and teenagers. But it has been a flash point in local politics in recent years. Battle Ground Public Schools recently scrapped requirements that it teach sexual health education, later amending the district policy to allow for the lessons in high school elective courses. The board in turn added a version of its high school health course that would include sexual health education, and is slated to adopt the curriculum for that course Monday.
School board president Troy McCoy said Saturday’s vote does not change the district’s immediate plan, but noted Monday’s curriculum adoption will only apply to the high school elective course, and not the broad requirements outlined in the legislation.
Under the amended version of the bill, students do not need to have access to sexual health education every school year; rather, the bill requires students have access to sexual health education once between kindergarten through third grade, once in fourth and fifth grade, twice in sixth through eighth grade, and twice in high school. The bill also requires that districts alert parents at the beginning of the school year that students will be receiving sexual health education, and parents may opt to keep their children from participating.
The bill does not require any school district to adopt specific curricula. It directs the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to review lessons to ensure they meet state standards. Standards vary widely by grade level depending on what is age appropriate. Kindergartners, for example, should recognize that boys and girls have some body parts that are different, while middle school students should be able to name and describe the parts of the reproductive system. All grade levels incorporate some component of describing appropriate relationships.
Primary sponsor Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, said in a news release that the bill’s passage will improve safety for children in Washington.
“We must ensure that our kids have the tools and knowledge they need to recognize and resist inappropriate behavior,” she said. “This important education will help prevent younger kids from being targeted by pedophiles, and help teens who feel pressured to have sex.”
In floor testimony, Rivers said she supports the idea that children should know how to make good choices and have healthy relationships. She disagreed, however, that comprehensive sexual health education is the way to do that. She also said the bill does not “respect the idea of local control,” the idea that districts should decide how best to serve their students.
“That means it does not respect the opinions of parents, of taxpayers, of grandparents or anyone else who may reside in a particular school district,” she said.