A look at sexual health education changes coming to Washington schools

SPOKANE, Wash. – A controversial bill signed into law in Florida prohibits certain LGBTQ topics from being taught in kindergarten through third grade. 

Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill, which opponents have labeled “Don’t Say Gay,” that says schools cannot teach topics including gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3.

It has sparked debate on sexual health education across the country, so, what is being taught in local schools? 

It’s important to note that Washington state law does not require sexual health education for students in grades K-3. The new law, which was passed in 2020, will not change that. However, other changes are coming, if schools haven’t implemented them already. 

The law passed in 2020 requires schools to provide some sort of comprehensive sexual education by this upcoming school year. There were changes implemented over the years and this upcoming school year, 2022/23, will be the deadline for the last pieces.

As it stands, schools are required to teach students about physical changes in puberty starting in fourth grade. 

In fifth grade, students learn about HIV and AIDS prevention, abstinence, as well as healthy boundaries and relationships. 

As students move into middle and high school, they learn about reproduction and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. 

One new change coming this fall will require districts to provide “social-emotional learning” to students in grades K-3 if they aren’t already. That means learning how to cope with feelings, setting goals or getting along with others. 

Social-emotional learning is not a new concept for schools. Lisa Cleveland, a counselor at Riverbend Elementary, is very familiar with it, helping students talk through feelings.

“It could involve – how do we assertively stand up for ourselves? Just making sure that we have that sense of belonging and helping other feels that sense of belonging as well. It encompasses a lot of life skills,” Cleveland said.

Even in the new law, sexual health information is not required to be taught in K-3, though the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said it could be, as long as it aligns with the state’s comprehensive sexual health education requirements.

In some schools across Spokane, including the Central Valley School District, they have stated they will not do that.

Tim Nootenboom, the district’s associate superintendent for learning and teaching, says they’re in the process of looking at the curriculum and make sure it’s in line with the law by its deadline this upcoming school year.

“One of the things we’re looking at is mapping what has been taught in the previous standards in our school that our community is more familiar with, and then really identifying all the areas we might have some gaps based upon the new law and the new standards,” he said.

Schools have a process they go through whenever changing curriculum. Districts have to get curricula approved by the school board and then give enough time for parents to review and understand the material, too.

“Some of the things we’re really trying to balance is what is appropriate to make sure all students are accepted and apart and are able to be contributing members of our school community and at the same time, honor the community values,” Nootenboom said.

Parents should know that when and if schools talk about sexual health education, they will be told beforehand and can even review the material. 

If parents are not comfortable with those lesson plans, they can opt their students out

Learn more about other comprehensive sexual education changes and the implementation process, click here.

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