Passage of Referendum 90 brings minimal changes to Walla Walla Public Schools

Abby Main, Staff Reporter

The passage of Referendum 90 in Washington state will enact Senate Bill 5395 into law, mandating comprehensive sexual health education for K-12 students in public schools across the state. School districts can either choose from a list of approved curriculums or create their own, provided it complies with state requirements. 

According to the original bill, lessons must be taught no less than once to students in kindergarten through third grade, once in grades four and five, and twice to students grades nine through twelve. The curriculum requirements are designed to be age-appropriate: lessons would focus on social and emotional learning in K-3 and affirmative consent and sexual health in grades 5 and later.

In Walla Walla County, where 50.1 percent of voters rejected Referendum 90 by a 31 vote margin, the legislation will have varying effects on local school districts.

For the majority of students in Walla Walla County, Referendum 90’s passage will have little to no effect. Walla Walla Public Schools (WWPS), the largest district in the county, has taught comprehensive sexual health education since 2002

In 2018, the district adopted the Rights, Respect, Responsibility (3Rs) curriculum, an adaptable model designed to provide an inclusive and comprehensive health education.

Walla Walla Public Schools currently teach sexual health lessons in the fifth grade, multiple years of middle school, and in a required high school health class.

According to Casey Monahan, Walla Walla Public Schools Curriculum Coordinator, the district needs to make minimal adjustments to comply with the new law. The bill will require the district to add a lesson in grades K-3 as well as a second lesson in high school. 

The district previously kept physical copies of the sexual health curriculum at the district office for parents and guardians to preview and decide whether to opt their students out of the lessons. Now, district officials will need to add the PDFs to the district website.

While there has been some doubt within the community concerning these changes — fueled in part by confusion on social media and deliberate misinformation — Monahan found that those worries soon dissipated after conversations with families. And ultimately, parents can still opt their children out of these lessons.

This opt-out option also has some effect on how WWPS adapts the 3Rs curriculum for their classrooms, Monahan explained. Because parents might opt students out of lessons with material that they don’t approve of, some of the more progressive lessons might not be taught in an attempt to have as many students as possible attend these lessons. 

“We highly value educating students on what they need to be successful, healthy, happy adults, and we’re going to be careful not to be inflammatory so that people don’t get turned off,” Monahan said.

Christy Krutulis, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning at WWPS, described a recent interaction she had with a family. Concerned with what they had heard about the referendum on social media, their fears were abated after going through the curriculum with Krutulis.

“The rhetoric out there is a bit inaccurate at times or one-sided,” Krutulis said. “[The referendum] doesn’t change a lot for us, and because we have local control we’re able to make decisions with teachers, with input from the Healthy Youth Survey we get every two years, to really localize the lessons to our community and what our students need.”

While Walla Walla Public Schools will make only minimal changes to their existing sexual health curriculum, other districts have further to go. A 2019 report for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction shows that Columbia School District, like WWPS, currently teaches sexual health education in K-5, middle school, and high school. However, College Place and Prescott Public Schools only teach lessons in K-5. The same self-reported survey shows that Touchet School District does not offer any sexual health education.

According to the new state standards, public schools are required to teach comprehensive sexual health education to grades 6-12 starting next school year and grades K-5 beginning in 2022. While changes required of Walla Walla Public Schools are manageable, Krutulis explained that other districts will face additional challenges.

“If districts haven’t already implemented these [sexual health] materials, I could see that building knowledge with your teachers to then be able to have conversations with parents and the community, that’s a heavy lift,” Krutulis said. “If you’re a district without [sexual health education] at all …  there’s some work to do.”