What Referendum 90 really means for public schools in Washington.
The Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5395 in March, requiring public schools in Washington to teach a standardized comprehensive sexual health education curriculum. Now, Referendum 90 could overturn this decision.
The group Parents for Safe Schools filed Referendum 90 with the goal of overturning Senate Bill 5395. Parents for Safe Schools could not be reached for comment.
A vote to approve Referendum 90 supports allowing Senate Bill 5395 to take effect, which would require public schools in Washington state to teach comprehensive sexual health education. A vote to reject Referendum 90 opposes allowing Senate Bill 5395 to take effect.
The bill would take effect in the 2021-2022 school year for grades sixth through twelfth, and in the 2022-2023 school year for grades K-fifth.
For children in grades K-third, the curriculum would focus on social-emotional learning. Examples of this learning include: identifying safe and unsafe touch, identifying trusted adults and demonstrating healthy ways to express feelings. No sexual content would be required for children of these ages, according to Senate Bill 5395.
“We want everyone to feel like they can go into society and have good experiences with other people. And we can’t expect that people are going to behave appropriately if they don’t know what appropriate behavior is,” said Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute.
One major aspect of Senate Bill 5395 is the teaching of affirmative consent. According to the Senate Bill Report, affirmative consent in this instance means to give clear, voluntary and enthusiastic permission to engage in an activity that is not necessarily sexual. While children would be taught what affirmative consent means in different instances, this education would not be sexual in nature.
“The youngest children are learning core concepts, like bodily autonomy,” said Laurel Redden, marketing communications manager for the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.
An example of this would be asking to borrow a pencil and waiting for the other student to say yes before grabbing the pencil, Redden said.
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center is a nonprofit organization that provides services to survivors of sexual assault and their families. Their ultimate mission is to eliminate sexual assault and abuse from the King County community. According to their website, they are an interdisciplinary organization that works in the areas of treatment, advocacy and policy development.
However, the issue of affirmative consent has sparked concerns from some parents, said Anniece Barker, founder of A Voice for Washington Children, a coalition of parents and community members who oppose both Referendum 90 and Senate Bill 5395. A Voice for Washington Children partnered with Parents for Safe Schools to gather the signatures needed to file the referendum.
“We’re teaching kids about consent way below the legal age of consent in Washington state. It doesn’t make sense,” Barker said.
According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the curriculum would focus on affirmative consent in terms of hugs, horseplay and virtual contact, such as text and email for fourth to fifth grade students. Students would also receive bystander training which focuses on how to intervene in instances of bullying or sexual harassment.
In grades sixth to eighth, students would receive the same instruction as grades fourth through fifth, as well as age-appropriate information about sexual offenses in which the victim is a minor, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Comprehensive sexual health education can interrupt sexual abuse, as well as prevent it from happening, Redden said.
“When you start talking about things like teaching children medically accurate, fact-based terminology for body parts, you start to see where this could be helpful in flagging abuse that’s happening,” she said. “We feel very strongly that children often don’t have the language they would need to alert a trusted adult to the fact that they’re being abused.”
Under Senate Bill 5395, the state will mandate learning requirements, but individual districts will be able to choose the lessons and curriculum they follow, according to the Senate Bill Report.
“Right now, we have a situation where some districts aren’t teaching this curriculum,” Villeneuve said. “Every Washingtonian deserves access to information to understand how relationships should work, how to say no and how to protect [themselves].”
Opponents of the referendum, however, believe the bill teaches sexual content to children too young, and that sexual health education should be left up to parents.
“The state does not know what’s best for my child. They have no idea, they’re not in my house. They do not know the development of my child,” Barker said. “For the state to say that they know what is age-appropriate for every child in Washington state is a huge overreach.”
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center works with parents to give them the resources they need to talk with their children about topics of sexual education. However, Redden does not feel that this education can only take place in the home.
Cases of child sexual abuse often happen in the home, or with adults who are close to the family, Redden said. Therefore it is important to provide them with accurate information outside of the home, she said.
Other proponents say that the only way to ensure that this information is being provided is to standardize the curriculum in public schools.
“People who oppose this law say it’s something parents should teach. Okay, but what if the parents don’t teach it?” Villeneuve said.
Villeneuve said that if schools aren’t providing this information in a safe, accurate way, students may turn to the internet or other unsafe channels to learn information about sexual health and social emotional learning.
A lack of funding for comprehensive sexual education curriculums is also a concern for Barker.
“We have school districts that are already having to slash their budgets to cut programs because they are not funded well enough, and now they want to implement a whole new curriculum with no funding,” Barker said.
According to the fiscal impact statement of Senate Bill 5395, there would be an intermediate fiscal impact on school districts. The exact costs are not yet known, because the costs on school districts depend on local decisions about the adoption process and training for new curricula. There are free curricula offered by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, so any costs would be at the discretion of local school districts, according to the fiscal impact statement.