Public school districts in Northwest Washington and around the state are preparing now to meet new mandates for teaching about sexuality and gender.
In 2020 the legislature passed Senate Bill 5395, requiring for the first time that sex education in public schools be expanded beyond HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention. The new law requires curriculum to be inclusive of all students based on current protected classes, including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
In 2021, state voters responded to a referendum challenging the legislation, and affirmed the new law by a 58% majority. Implementation is to start this fall, with the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.
“The goals are for all students to feel seen and accepted for who they are and for all students to receive instruction that is useful and relevant to them as individuals,” per the state’s Office of Public Instruction (OSPI).
For healthy relationships
Currently local districts take a variety of approaches to sex and gender education beyond the required HIV/AIDS curriculum. Bellingham and Mount Vernon schools, for example, both say they already are meeting most if not all the requirements of the new law. Other districts may need to add content at some or all grade levels.
Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-42), who has been involved in the discussion both as a legislator and a parent of school-age children, said there had been misperceptions and misinformation about what SB5395 would do. Shewmake supported the bill, seeing SB 5395 as ensuring that all kids have a foundation to know about healthy relationships and how to protect themselves. She said when she talked with constituents to clarify misinformation, they all agreed with that aim as well.
The leading group for the Referendum 90 petition campaign against the bill, Parents for Safe Schools, had said on their website that they want to protect children from a “radical cultural takeover” and to not let schools in Washington become “indoctrination camps for a Leftist agenda.”
After their defeat in the 2020 election, they vowed to continue the fight at the local school board level. One of the candidates they endorsed, Tonya Hickman, defeated longtime incumbent Steve Jilk to join the Lynden School Board this year.
Putting law into action
Curriculum requirements are designed to be grade-appropriate. For grades K-3, there is no sexual health content required. Annual HIV/STD prevention education is required to start no later than grade 5, and subjects such as affirmative consent, bystander training and human growth and development begin in grades 4-5 and continue through grade 12, according to OSPI: “All content must be age-appropriate, medically and scientifically accurate and inclusive of all students, including language and strategies that recognize all members of protected classes.”
The Bellingham School District has met many of the requirements of comprehensive sexual health education for years, said Dana Smith, media liaison for the district. The district is currently in the process of selecting what curriculum they will implement in the 2022-23 school year. They’re doing this through a task force composed of community members, parents and educators.
The task force is reviewing three programs — UN|HUSHED, 3Rs (Rights, Respect, Responsibility) and FLASH — for elementary, middle and high school, with an additional program, Native Stand, being reviewed for high school. The group has been working since March of this year to review the materials, all of which are from the OSPI pre-screened options. All meet state requirements, Smith said, and the task force created a screening tool to determine which will best meet the needs of Bellingham students.
The Mount Vernon School District uses the program The Great Body Shop, which meets the requirements of SB 5395, said Melissa Van Straten, director of elementary teaching and learning.
“Providing comprehensive sexual health education for our students has been an important point of emphasis and pride in our district for many years, but recent work in our state has improved the curriculum that we offer,” Robert Coffey, vice president of the Mount Vernon school board, wrote in an email.
The district has been using this program since the 2018-19 school year, and teachers and administrators chose the curriculum after reviewing multiple resources. At the time, comprehensive sexual health education was not required to be taught in schools.
In the elementary schools, The Great Body Shop focuses on consent from the standpoint that people have the right to say “no”, to ask others’ permission for a variety of scenarios and body privacy. There is also teaching on gender and being respectful of everyone.
The board has received only a few comments on the curriculum, which have been directed to the superintendent’s office, wrote Coffey.
Meridian School District has been working with community members on a 4th and 5th grade curriculum choice since October 2021. Interested families can sign up to preview the entire curriculum for 60 days through its provider’s website, The Wonder Years.
At the end of April, some Bellingham students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds spoke to a panel of teachers and administrators about their experiences and needs. Some students from different Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) clubs from across the district were on the panel.
Bethany Barrett, an assistant principal and GSA advisor at Sehome High School, said students asked for a diverse curriculum that reflects who they are.
“I had the opportunity to go into an [advanced placement] U.S. history class and teach a lesson on LGBTQ+ history, and the kids ate it up,” Barrett said. “And they were just like, ‘thank you so much, we should have a whole class where we can learn all of this’.”
Diverse representation means more than just LGBTQ+ experiences, but also different races, points of view. Barrett said it’s about seeing all students represented.
Inclusion in the sexual health education curriculum can now be a given for students of all genders and sexual identities in Bellingham schools, said Barrett.
There is overlap between Barrett’s work and all curriculum, including sexual health education.
“The curriculum needs to be an inclusive space for them to talk and learn about gender orientation or gender identity, sexual orientation, and the many different kinds of relationships that show up in the world,” Barrett said. “We need mirrors that reflect and doors that open into new points of view that help round out our community.”
Safety and health
Several groups in the community work with area schools in alignment with district policy and state standards.
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County (DVSAS) focuses on violence prevention in schools. The prevention program works entirely with youth, said Shoshana Bass, prevention program supervisor, and focuses on creating a culture where violence doesn’t occur.
DVSAS has a three-day, primary prevention curriculum, based on best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and current research from the Washington State Coalition for Sexual Assault Programs.
Bass said the inclusive discussions of sexual health education makes classroom culture in Bellingham and Whatcom County schools different than other places.
Bass said they have seen support in schools in Bellingham and Whatcom County for LGBTQ+ identities.
In a prevention training exercise demonstrating how power manifests in a relationship, a couple uses, they/them pronouns, which Bass said allows students to see examples of gender nonconforming people, as well as talk about how men are impacted by sexual violence. “We acknowledge you guys experience violence, and the world doesn’t talk about it,” Bass said.
The Christian faith-based organization Whatcom County Pregnancy Clinic has a program taught in area schools, including some Bellingham public schools, called “Relate,” which includes teaching on “sexual risk avoidance” as well as “tools to develop healthy relationships,” per their webpage.
When asked if Relate discusses and acknowledges diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions, Amy Myers, Relate coordinator, said that when talking about sexual relationships, they don’t focus on gender.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s two girls, if it’s two guys, if it’s a guy [and] girl — if there’s still two people they still have the same risk factors,” Myers said.
As outlined in Relate’s curriculum, “All youth have the same needs regardless of sexual orientation or identity, for love, acceptance, protection and guidance. Sexual activity is still sexual activity and STIs are equal opportunity infectors. Behavior must be modified to avoid risks associated with sexual activity.”
Identity, quality of life
WinkWink, which brands itself as “a woman-owned, inclusive, ‘not creepy’ sex shop,” also offers sexual health education to young people. Store owner Jenn Mason teaches the course in her downtown shop and in 2021 began teaching classes in private schools.
Mason said she designs the curriculum based on what the schools are looking for. She said the courses generally cover communication, consent, deconstructing perceptions about sex, healthy relationships, anatomy, reproduction and gender identity, expression and sexual orientation.
Mason thinks it is important for everyone to affirm how they see themselves, and gender and sexuality play a big part of identity. Young queer and trans people with supportive adults in their lives have lower risk of suicide and depression, and overall better quality of life, Mason said. This is supported by research compiled on the CDC website, which also shows that health curriculum should include HIV, STD and pregnancy prevention information that is relevant to lesbian, gay and bisexual youth.
Mason said Bellingham is collectively a supportive community, but she has experienced resistance to acknowledging different gender identity and sexuality, and that’s why we need to keep sex education moving forward.
Before the beginning of the school year Bellingham schools will be moving forward with a new sex education curriculum. Smith said the task force was ready to make a recommendation on the curriculum, but the program it favors will be issuing an updated version. The task force will resume review once the new version is out, and Smith said that the new version promises to be even further aligned with Washington state. After the curriculum is chosen, the public will have a chance to review it.
In some communities, school boards’ decisions about curricula such as sex education, race and even masks have become political flashpoints reflecting divisions and fractures in communities. (See “Confrontations, demands for parents’ rights challenge local school boards” Salish Current, March 4, 2022.)
Recently, the Marysville school board was locked in debate about whether to implement policy requiring students to receive parental permission to attend before or after school clubs. Critics of the policy argue it would impede access to clubs for LGBTQ+ students. Supporters of the policy say they want parental oversight — and that kids might be too young to discuss sexuality
The processes districts are developing to discuss and implement SB 5395 will likely be used in future to resolve conflicts over other divisive issues in education and community life.
— Reported by Lauren Gallup
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