Sex ed legislation prompts local school districts to write governor

by RACHAL PINKERTON
Staff Writer | March 19, 2020 3:00 PM

GRANT AND ADAMS COUNTIES — Last week, three local school districts discussed the sexual education legislation that passed the Washington state legislature and is waiting for Gov. Jay Inslee to sign it. Othello, Wahluke and Warden school districts all wrote letters to the governor asking him not to sign Senate Bill 5395.

One of the biggest concerns about Senate Bill 5395 is that it will take away some of the local control over what students are taught concerning sexual education.

“It seems to be an overreach of the state on how we teach this to our children and what we teach,” said Lorraine Jenne, Wahluke School Board president, during a regular board meeting on Tuesday, March 10.

Jenne said that she had stayed up and listened to the discussion the legislature had before passing the bill. She commented that there wasn’t much for the local board to decide. The bill allows local school districts to choose from approved curricula or to write their own. Districts that choose to write their own must submit their curriculum yearly to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The curriculum creation will be at the districts’ own expense.

Jenne noted that as the bill was being discussed, there was a disclaimer alerting parents to the fact that the legislature was discussing mature topics.

During its meeting, the Wahluke School Board voted to write a letter to Inslee asking him not to sign the comprehensive sexual health education bill.

Wahluke was not the only school board to make such a vote last week. Warden and Othello also wrote similar letters.

During the Warden School Board meeting on Thursday, March 12, board members also voted to send a letter to the governor. They also had comments from the public expressing their concern over the bill.

In Othello on Monday, March 9, school board member Jenn Stevenson briefed the board and community members present on the new law.

“My biggest concern with sharing this at the board meeting was separating facts from fiction,” Stevenson said in a later interview. “There is so much false information. I just want to put the truth out there more than anything else. Am I in favor of it? No, I’m not.”

Stevenson said that this is a sensitive issue and that she is glad that parents still have the choice to opt their child out of sexual education classes.

Another thing she pointed out is that OSPI will have to answer to the legislature every year on the status of sexual education. This will be the only topic where that is the case. Stevenson feels that the legislature is stepping out of its territory.

“This is super weird stuff that we’ve never seen before,” Stevenson said.

The new law specifies that school districts must have curricula that meet the January 2005 standards for sexual health education. The Othello School District’s current sex ed curriculum meets the standards as set by the new law, with the exception of kindergarten through third grade. For those grades, it has been up to the discretion of teachers and principals as to what curriculum should be taught as it relates to the 2005 guidelines. Now the district will have to get a formal curriculum.

Stevenson thinks that with the new spotlight on sexual health curriculum, the district will probably review its curriculum and see if there is a better option.

“Let’s find the best curriculum, even if it is the same thing,” Stevenson said.

When asked if she thought sex ed should be taught in schools, Stevenson said yes. While she believes that every parent should have the right to educate their children on the subject in the way they see best, some parents won’t or don’t educate their children.

“If the discussions aren’t happening at home, they’re going to be happening in the locker room,” Stevenson said. “That is the worst place for those discussions to happen.”

When taught at school, students are able to get medically and scientifically accurate information.

At this point, the Othello School Board has not discussed changing the curriculum. Othello School Board President Mike Garza said on Monday that the current situation is fluid and will be discussed by the board further.

As of Tuesday morning, the governor had not yet signed the bill. Garza said that if and when the governor does sign it, the board will be looking for the curriculum that best represents the community. The Othello School Board’s discussion on sexual education can be viewed on the district’s YouTube channel.

The Wahluke School District is also looking at its current sex ed curriculum. Some of its staff members have already been talking to parents and other staff members to determine the best way to address this topic.

Rachal Pinkerton may be emailed via email at rpinkerton@suntribunenews.com.