By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“We went through our entire K-12 experiences without any information to protect ourselves,” said Kaitlyn Chin, a University of Washington freshman who is a sexual assault survivor.
Chin spoke during the AAPI Candidates and Issues Forum on Oct. 22 of the importance of approving Referendum 90.
“We are now entering college or the workforce with trauma that has ultimately led to struggles in both life and school,” Chin said—struggles that could have been avoided.
Liezl Rebugio with the Approve R-90 campaign is a mother.
“I am voting to approve 90 so my girls have better information than I did growing up to protect themselves from abuse and make good decisions about relationships and their health,” Rebugio said.
The Washington state Legislature passed a routine sex education requirement for public schools earlier this year. But a coalition of Republicans and religious conservatives launched a swift, historic backlash that’s led to a bitter partisan fight.
The resulting referendum on the November ballot marks the first time in the country that such a decision on sex ed will be decided by voters. Under the wide-ranging bill, kindergarteners would be taught how to manage feelings and make friends, while older kids will learn about consent and how to respond to violence. The curriculum must also address issues faced by LGBTQ students.
At least 29 states plus Washington, D.C., require public schools to teach sex education, but the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Education Commission of the States—two organizations that track policy trends—said it has never appeared on a statewide ballot.
A Washington state group funded by Republican leaders, called Parents for Safe Schools, forced the issue onto the ballot by submitting over 264,000 signatures, the most gathered for a referendum to overturn an existing bill or law in the past four decades, according to the secretary of state. It was double the minimum number needed to make the ballot, with two-thirds coming from church sites.
Also speaking at the AAPI Candidates and Issue Forum, Dr. Kevin Wang said this kind of curriculum is key because health care providers—family physicians, pediatricians, primary care doctors—can’t reach everyone.
“I want all youth in Washington to have a safe and healthy future,” said Wang, who is a faculty member at Swedish First Hill’s Family Medicine residency program.
Wang said the information will be “high quality and medically accurate.” Students will learn how to respect personal boundaries, ask for consent, and learn to say and receive a no.
Rebugio said 34% of all child sexual abuse victims are assaulted by the time they are 12.
“Children being sexually abused often don’t understand what is happening until someone provides them with the tools and language to communicate it with a trusted adult,” said Rebugio.
Republicans have slammed the mandate as an affront to local and parental control of education. Though school boards have the authority to create or adopt their own curriculum, opponents said the bill would still dictate what must be covered in classes.
Opposition leaders say they aren’t necessarily opposed to sex education but see the statewide mandate as heavy-handed.
The Washington State Catholic Conference, the policy arm of church leadership in the state, is especially opposed to the affirmative consent aspect of the curriculum because the church opposes premarital sex.
“When you get into the issues of how do you say ‘yes’ or how do you say ‘no,’ that can easily open the door to that ‘It’s OK. It’s OK to say yes and no,’ and that steps on our teaching that sexual activity is to be reserved for the sacrament of marriage,” said Mario Villanueva, executive director of the conference.
Rebugio stressed the information taught to students will be age appropriate.
“Approving 90 will not teach kids to have sex,” she said. “It will cover healthy friendship and how to identify trusted adults, so children have the tools to avoid sexual assault and sexual predators. Parents retain the ultimate authority with the ability to review lesson plans, and even opt out their children.”
The Approve R-90 campaign has the support of 180 organizations statewide, including AAPI Chaya, Asia Pacific Cultural Center, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, AAPI Americans for Civic Empowerment, and the AAPI Coalition of Washington.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.