Teen pregnancy rates have declined in Washington state in recent years, but the rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including chlamydia and gonorrhea, have climbed. There’s also been an increase in young people reporting that they’ve had “unwanted sexual contact.”
Two Democratic state representatives are sponsoring a bill that would require public schools to teach comprehensive sexual health education.
Right now, it’s optional for schools to teach sexual health curriculum, but the legislation introduced by Rep. Monica Stonier of Vancouver and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos of Seattle would require all schools to teach comprehensive sexual health education by the 2022-23 school year.
In December, a work group that included school and state education officials, parents and public health officials recommended to the Legislature that comprehensive sex ed be required in schools, saying that it’s an equity issue. They said some groups of students, including young people who live in out-of-home care or who identify as LGBTQ+, “are often excluded from relevant, inclusive instruction.”
But this is a hot-button issue. So many people showed up to testify at a public hearing in Olympia that they had to sit in overflow rooms and about 97 people signed up to speak, Santos said.
People who opposed it raised a number of objections. Some said this should be decided by locally elected school boards, and a number of people said school is not where young people should learn about contraception or sexual health.
“Parents are the best teachers of these matters for all ages,” said Jon Schrock, a pastor from Airway Heights in Eastern Washington. “Parents have the best understanding and knowledge of what their child will understand or comprehend.”
Melissa Walker, a psychotherapist from Yakima, agreed that parents are in the best position to give children this information.
“I’m very invested in my children being protected and being knowledgeable about sex and sexual matters, but I think I’m best placed to be empowered to do that for my children,” Walker said.
Under current law, parents are allowed to review a school’s curriculum and opt their children out. This bill would continue that.
People who spoke in favor said they are concerned that young people will not have access to reliable information unless they get it in school.
“I’m currently a college student and I’ve found that I have had to fill the gaps left from my high school sex ed curriculum through self-teaching,” said Gracie Anderson from Olympia. “This is dangerous, especially because we know that the internet can be an unreliable source for this information.”
Andrea Alejandra attends Washington State University Vancouver and supports the bill.
“I strongly urge that we give our students the right information at a young age so that they’re prepared and they are ready when they get to higher education, when they get out into the big, scary world, and we aren’t just sending them off with things they got off Wikipedia and Google,” Alejandra said.