2020 Katharine V. Byers BSW Award

Contest winners: Melanie Alvarado, Savannah Hollar, Kashira Jenkins, Maya Ledoux, Olivia Miller, September Valentine, and Alyssa Bartlett (University of Washington students)

Faculty Advisor: Claudia Sellmaier, University of Washington, Tacoma

For our policy project, we decided to tackle a policy issue that seems relatively low priority on first glance–but that we discovered through research was actually a major source of injustice that we had the opportunity to oppose. That issue is sex education. The purpose of our project was to spread awareness and advocate for Washington State to pass a bill that would mandate all of the schools, K-12, be required to have truly comprehensive sexual health education, as we will describe below.

As future social workers, our group believes in advocating for such a policy change that will help those in our community, particularly those who are impacted by sexual violence and STIs, as well as those who are persecuted for their sexuality or gender. And such a change is long overdue: Washington was one of 18 states that did not mandate sex education–until March of 2020, only days before the submission of this entry.

Our group supported throughout the quarter the state senate bill that would lead to this change for the better. SB 5395 requires the same sort of comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive education that California uses for students in the 6th-12th grade. In addition, it lifts even younger children out of ignorance of different family types, normalizes same-sex parents, and gives them an age-appropriate foundation with which to learn and practice consent socially with their peers. To that end, our group set up an information table on our campus at the University of Washington Tacoma to invite people to learn about this bill and why it is important. We coordinated with the NARAL Coalition in Olympia on a policy day at the state capitol, and crafted flyers for those who were interested in taking literature and continuing to learn about this policy on their own time. We also had laptops available for people to look up who their legislators were and having our visitors email them with support for our bill, if they were so inclined. It should go without saying that we did so ourselves, as well. We also spent quite some time explaining what the bill actually entails because most were unaware that there wasn’t already something like this bill in place—most left-leaning states already have a mandatory and comprehensive policy regime.

The outcome of our efforts is clear: with our support and the support of countless other progressive people, this bill has reached Governor Inslee’s desk with solid margins in both the House and Senate (56-40-2 and 27-21, respectively). Because of this bill, more than a million school-age children in Washington State will receive quality sexual health education over just the next few years alone, changing their lives for the better. And because the bill also mandates annual updates to the curriculum, we can be sure that this policy regime is here to stay—and will teach millions more in the years to come. It turns out that good policy outcomes that look controversial aren’t always impossible to achieve.

A lot of Millennials and Gen-Zers, especially those of us who are marginalized by our race or gender, look at the world as a place that will not make room for us; however, we managed to change a few minds on our campus, we advocated with our representatives and now, every kid in Washington state will have a comprehensive, consent based LGBT inclusive sexual education–a little breathing room for all of us. Safe and consensual sex is a part of life for most people, and we now have a curriculum that reflects that. This was not an easy win; the bill garnered strong opposition from right-wing groups like The Family Research Institute, an organization notorious for its anti-LGBT policy advocacy, which sometimes slandered the bill as pornographic and inappropriate for young children. But that only makes the victory sweeter. And though at first glance it may appear as only one step in the right direction, it’s a leap forward to ensuring the rights and protection of our state’s children and the dignity of our clients.