Washington’s new recommendations for teaching K-12 students about gender identity have seen rejuvenated debate in recent weeks leading up to implementation of the guidelines in the 2017-2018 school year.
When the recommendations were announced last year, they came under fire from some conservative groups, including the Family Policy Institute of Washington, who said they would “transform public schools into a conduit for promoting the latest gender theories plaguing universities across the country.”
A letter to the editor in The News Tribune resurfaced the topic in late July, calling the recommendations “targeted indoctrination of our children in undermining traditional values” and saying they’re being taught to children at too young of an age. The letter has been viewed more than 85,000 times since July 30 on the newspaper’s website.
State officials have a different view of the recommendations on teaching gender identity. They say they’re age appropriate and necessary to teach respect and understanding for different people.
Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said one reason the category is being taught is to try and quell bullying in schools.
“We know from many studies that some of the causes of bullying and harassment — and by extension suicide — have to do with issues of self identity,” Olson said.
He also said the recommendations are optional. Schools must meet a set of broad standards when teaching sexual education and physical health. But districts can choose whether to teach most topic areas outlined within those standards, including the new and controversial “self-identity” guidelines.
Districts also can choose how to interpret the guidelines and vary their teaching based on community values, Olson said.
“The state provides a very mild umbrella, and beyond that it really is up to each district to fill in more,” he said.
Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said Wednesday the district is not teaching the identity standards this school year “primarily because there is no established curriculum for teaching them.”
The district may teach them in the future, but Voelpel said officials want to vet curricula “to make sure they’re effective.”
Washington revised its health standards over the course of roughly 14 months because state law requires them to be revisited occasionally. They were written by a mix of parents, teachers, researchers and others.
The group looked at national standards and also studied the standards in other states for inspiration. They’re also “based on the most recent scientific research that’s done on how children learn about all these different topics,” Olson said.
State officials say thousands of teachers, administrators, professionals, parents and students reviewed the guidelines.
Here’s a glance at what’s in the “self-identity” recommendations:
An OSPI document explaining the health standards says students can be taught in kindergarten and first grade that “there are many ways to express gender.”
Olson said the standards are meant to be “age appropriate” and are intended to involve simple classroom discussions about what gender means.
Questions such as, “Is it OK for a boy to wear a pink shirt and a girl to play soccer?” might be posed, Olson said. Districts can go further than what the state recommends, but Olson emphasized the teaching is meant to be age appropriate.
By third grade, when children are roughly 8 or 9 years old, the OSPI standards document says kids can be taught that “gender roles can vary considerably” and says students should “understand importance of treating others with respect regarding gender identity.”
Olson said that might mean conversations such as, “Is it just women that do the housework?” It could also include “discussion that other people might have different identities regarding gender,” he said.
In fourth grade, when children are typically 10 years old, the guidelines say students should learn the definition of sexual orientation and more.
From there, the standards recommend discussion of cultural influences on gender identity and eventually ramp up to more in-depth lessons on biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation and more.
The letter to the editor in The News Tribune says children “as young as 5” will learn about HIV prevention.
According to the OSPI document, teaching sexual health standards begins in fourth and fifth grade, when children are usually 9 to 11 years old.
Olson said that includes learning about the prevention of HIV, which has been required by state law since at least 2008.
That law requires “medically accurate sexual health education” taught when “age-appropriate.” It also blocks schools from teaching abstinence-only sex education.