Referendum 90 will change Sexual Health Education in Washington state

New legislation requires that sexual health education is offered to all students and will expand upon previous requirements


Graphic created by Nika Perez

Ref. 90: Bill passes on Nov. 3, 2020. Bill was voted on by 2,283,630 Washington state voters. “If students don’t learn about sex from trustworthy adults like teachers and parents – where are they going to find the answers to their questions?” sophomore Alison Powers said.

Sexual Health Education is an aspect of the American education system that has been a topic of controversy in recent years and is beginning to make more breakthroughs in expanding its role in students’ lives throughout districts across the country. Within the state of Washington, Referendum-90 was approved with over 2 million votes in the November 2020 election.
Many who oppose the legislation have raised the question of when exactly is the “right” time for children to learn about the complicated discussion of human growth and development? As the current situation with the referendum is still on-going, it’s crucial to properly establish what Referendum 90 is, as well as how it came to be.
Senate Bill 5395 was passed by the Washington legislature and signed by Governor Jay Inslee on Mar. 27 of 2019. However, the Bill was pushed to a referendum—for Washington voters to decide directly—by the group Parents for Safe Schools, who collected roughly 266,000 signatures. Parents for Safe Schools attempted to repeal Senate Bill 5395 by placing the Bill on the Nov. 2020 ballot.
In spite of this, Referendum 90 ended up passing with a majority by Washington voters. Senate Bill 5395 will take effect for students between grades 6-12 in the 2021-2022 school year. The bill requires that Washington school districts develop or adopt a Sexual Education curriculum that abides by the new state standards. The curriculum, in order to abide by the new state standard, must provide lessons in affirmative consent and bystander training multiple times throughout students’ schooling.
According to the legislation, affirmative consent “is an approach to giving and receiving consent that includes clear, voluntary, enthusiastic permission to engage in sexual activity. It is not just the absence of ‘no.’”
Students will learn about affirmative consent in grades 4-12. In grades 4-5, students must receive one lesson in which affirmative consent and bystander training is taught. In grades 6-8, students will learn about these topics twice and then in between grades 9-12, they will learn about them twice more. Lessons may be provided twice in the same grade.
Senate Bill 5395 requires that students in K-3 receive social and emotional learning, which consists of understanding social awareness, how to manage emotions, making responsible decisions, and setting goals.
Senate Bill 5395 requires that all students receive “comprehensive, age-appropriate Sexual Health Education;” although, parents are able to opt students out of lessons if requested. Schools are required under Senate Bill 5395 to make parents aware that comprehensive sexual health education will be taught to students, and additionally requires that lesson material is readily accessible to parents.
“It is important to note that parents and guardians still are able to opt their child out of sexual health instruction if they choose,” Mike Snow, the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Lake Stevens School District said.
Lake Stevens School District, unlike a small minority of schools in Washington not teaching Human Growth and Development, already follows many requirements outlined in Senate Bill 5395.
The process of reviewing Lake Stevens School District’s current Health curriculum is underway.
“The language of 5395 will not really impact our current practices as much as other districts as we are more aligned to the indicators of 5395 than many other districts.” Snow said.
Although most School Districts in Washington teach some form of sexual health education, it was previously not a requirement. Washington schools that had Sexual Health Curriculums were required to follow the Healthy Youth Act, passed in 2007, which required instruction of disease prevention and contraceptive methods to students, and could not be abstinence-only instruction, Abstinence may not be taught to the exclusion of instruction and materials on FDA approved contraceptives and other disease prevention methods.”
There are a small number of school districts in Washington that don’t teach sexual education at all. The OSPI asked districts to self-report whether they teach sexual education and 19 school districts said they do not.
Theresa Pacheco, who teaches Family Health at Cavelero Mid-High School, believes that Senate Bill 5395 will impact sexual health education because it will require further discussions about affirmative consent and bystander training.
“I believe we do a good job with sexual health education in our district,” Pacheco said.
Sophomore Alison Powers has had mixed feelings about the way she has been taught Sexual Health Education in the past.
“I feel like they did a good job covering STDs and AIDS as they highlighted the importance of protection and provided many different ways to avoid pregnancy and STDs,” Powers said.
However, Powers believes that some of the most important aspects of sexual education, such as sexual coercion are not being taught to students.
“[Health teachers] should talk about sexuality, gender, and consent— Real consent,” Powers said. “Thankfully, my mom will answer a lot of sex-ed-related questions for me, but what about the students that don’t have parents willing to answer their questions?”

Andrea Ancich, a Family and Consumer Science teacher at Lake Stevens High School, understands the importance of providing students with factual information relating to human growth and development.
“I believe students should have factual information to help them make informed decisions about their whole health,” Ancich said. “After teaching for 19 years, all of them here in the LSSD, I’ve learned that we should always be striving to make things better and current.”
In spite of support clearly articulated by various Washington curriculum officials, professionals, and citizens alike, there is nonetheless sizable pushback and vocal skepticism present in communities across the state.
One such opposer, a member of the Washington State Senate, Shelly Short, made her criticism of Referendum 90 rather transparent – illustrating her point through thought-provoking questions.
“What’s affirmative consent when you’re a kindergartner?” adding that, “We want students to be safe, but this is misguided policy at its very core.”
Short’s statement echoes a sentiment presented by many who opposed the legislation.
It is important to note that Referendum 90 does not require kindergarteners to learn about affirmative consent or sexual education; rather, they are taught information around social and emotional learning,
Thousands of Washington community members and parents throughout the state were so outraged by the new curriculum’s “graphic sexual subject matter,” that the previously mentioned, Parents for Safe Schools, was formed with the sole intent to repeal Senate Bill 5395.
Their mission statement, touching on similar points brought up in Senator Short’s response, is found plastered on their various social media accounts as “Reject Referendum 90. Stop the early sexualization of our kids,” as well as elaborating that “These are decisions that should be left to parents and local communities.”
It seems that, above all, critics are mostly worried that the curriculum’s biggest adjustment of introducing sexual education at earlier grade levels to make younger children more thoroughly knowledgeable of human growth and development, plus the risks that can come with it. They believe it is unnecessary and potentially physiologically dangerous.
The Washington State Catholic Conference came forward with their opposition of Referendum 90 as well, differing with the younger age requirements due to the innate contradiction it presents in accordance with “the church teaching that sexual activity is reserved for marriage,” which is a concern in the eyes of many religious parents, and one that aligns similarly with the other points of reluctance discussed thus far.
Senate Bill 5395 will most impact school Districts in Washington that previously did not teach any form of Sexual Health Education.
The current Lake Stevens school district’s Health curriculum is currently under review. If changes to the current curriculum are found to be necessary in order to follow Senate Bill 5395 guidelines, Snow said that staff will receive professional learning, and parents will be notified of any changes.