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State-mandated comprehensive sex education takes effect Thursday

A globe stands over a socially distanced classroom at Newfield Elementary School on Aug. 31, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

After surviving a referendum this month, state-mandated comprehensive sex education takes effect Thursday, but there’s not much that will change right away.

“Almost nothing different this year because the first phase of the bill says that if you’re already teaching comprehensive sexual health that you need to make sure you have affirmative consent bystander in there for your high school,” said Chris Reykdal, state Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Many districts already do that. If they’re already offering CSE, they’re pretty much doing that already.”

“Next year, any district not doing this stuff in 6-12th grade needs to be. And it’s the third year out, so 22-23 school year, when they need to be fully implementing the K-5 stuff as well,” he added.

CSE stands for comprehensive sex education. The new law mandates this curriculum in all K-12 schools in the state. It was passed by the Legislature early this year and then approved by nearly 60% of Washington voters in Referendum 90 after a brutal campaign both for Reykdal in his bid for a second term, and the referendum itself. A ton of independent money was thrown into both, and things got ugly with attack ads and a lot of misinformation, according to Reykdal.

“The images that the opposition groups found do not exist in our law,” he said. “They’re not in our lesson plans. They’re not in our state standards. They’re not in any material that is given to a student or even a parent. This is just so important.”

One of the main opposition points in both campaigns had to do with the extra materials parents can work on with their kids at home, specifically a third-party worksheet opponents claimed to be teaching sexual positions to fourth graders.

Nearly every curriculum, Reykdal says, has an additional reading list for parents. If your kid is in chemistry, for example, there’s a list parents might want to look at, and Reykdal says it’s the same thing in this case.

“The only way these third party books end up in front of a kid is if a parent goes and gets them and says, ‘I want work with my kid further on reproduction,’ or sexual abuse, or anything else,” he said.

“It was just another political ploy to scare people,” Reykdal added. “But none of what people saw on the internet is actually a part of our curriculum. It’s a reference guide, and one of those books is a cartoon set of images that parents may choose to work with their kids further to describe puberty basically in reproduction. So it was unbelievable.”

Reykdal says he expects things to be difficult, especially around personal subjects.

“I always honored and respected people’s disagreement on this, but the dishonesty and the tactics were unprecedented,” he said.

With all of that going on over the past several months, Reykdal wanted to be sure parents knew exactly what this law does.

“What it is, is it’s evidence based, age appropriate, medically accurate education. While it is called comprehensive sexual health ed, it teaches about relationships. It’s about safe and healthy relationships, and it creates the building blocks,” he explained. “And the analogy I always make is math. You wouldn’t teach a kindergartner or third grader calculus. You’d start with basic numbers, basic addition, then subtraction, multiplication, division, then fractions. As kids get older, they learn age appropriate content so they’re ready for the next step.”

In kindergarten through third grade, Reykdal explained, the lessons are focused on what’s referred to as social emotional learning.

“It is about controlling your emotions, keeping your hands to yourself. The stuff we would traditionally teach, but it’s got a label now, and it needs to be more formed,” he said.

“[In] fourth and fifth grade, one lesson at a minimum, and that’s generally where districts begin to start talking about puberty because kids go through it earlier,” Reykdal continued. “By middle school, two lessons at a minimum. Generally, again, that’s either puberty if they choose that, or they maybe start getting into healthy, safe relationships.”

High school again is a minimum of two lessons.

“It really is about teaching disease prevention, pregnancy prevention. It is about affirmative consent education, helping kids understand how to avoid sexual abuse, sexual assault, and this bystander training,” Reykdal said. “How do you teach kids to recognize risk in their peers? ‘Hey, I’ve got a friend who I think might be a risk, I think something’s going on.’ How do you elevate that? How do you engage that individual and get help?”

Reykdal says CSE is “so common sense” that nearly 30 other states already have it in place.

“It isn’t about sex per se. It is definitely not about sexual positions,” he said. “It is not about any of those sort of accusations and misinformation that were used politically to try to get a vote to go a certain way.”

Local districts pick the curriculum of their choice, and parents have the right to know what their kids are being taught, in any year, Reykdal said. They also have the right to opt out of any or all of it.

One thing opposition groups consistently claim is that this curriculum is meant to go well beyond what’s required and will ultimately seep into every aspect of school.

“No, it’s not, but I mean, their concern is that, like a lot of subjects, there is overlap,” Reykdal said. “You teach math and chemistry, your daughter’s in chemistry right now, she’s using algebra skills in chemistry to calculate the mole, right? … So you can’t exclusively say that these themes aren’t going to be somewhere else, but no, actually teaching comprehensive sexual health that is the focus, content, and curriculum, it’s generally done in health class. Sometimes it’s a standalone class or a standalone activity. But we’ve just never seen this integration claim that folks make. And so we don’t know how to respond to that. We don’t see that in the districts who already do it.”

Local school districts can pick from a variety of curriculum that falls under CSE and meets state standards. Or they can come up with their own, again, meeting state standards, which can be found on the Office of Public Instruction’s website. Not available on OSPI’s website, however, is actual samples of the curriculum districts can choose from due to copyright issues.

“This is something we’ve just recently learned. It just seems crazy to me,” Reykdal said. “But we’ve always pointed to the materials, and we’ve always done our reviews to make sure they’re age appropriate, and so all that analysis is on our website. But yeah, apparently you’ve got to go to the publishers to go grab lesson plans because it’s copyrighted, and we run into this problem with all of our stuff — math, social studies, all of it — and that is a larger conversation.”

A big reason supporters say this type of education is needed is to protect kids from sexual abuse. At the same time, others worry that those who have already been abused may be triggered by this type of learning in the classroom.

“That’s why the parent notification part is in there. It isn’t just to let parents know who have concerns about this from why are you delivering at all, but it’s also to say, ‘hey, if your kid has been a victim of sexual abuse or this is a triggering event, we’re notifying you, and you may choose to opt your child out of this.’ Or you may want to deal with this differently than in a classroom environment,” Reykdal said. “So everyone is better off with notification, and that’s required of the bill.”

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Reykdal recommends parents work with local school districts to figure out what direction they’re going.

“What are they thinking about doing as part of curriculum adoption? They absolutely get to show you everything that they’ll be teaching,” he said. “It’s required by the bill.”

And, Reykdal says, always remember that while districts cannot opt out of having this taught in their schools, parents can opt their children out.

KIRO Radio’s Hanna Scott contributed to this report.

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