Camas educators: Let’s talk about sex

As sexual health standards change, school district leaders seek student, parent input

Camas School District leaders are looking to the community and students to help guide discussions surrounding sexual health education in the classroom.

The district has used the FLASH curriculum, a comprehensive science-based sexual health education (sex ed) curriculum designed to prevent pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexual violence since the 2010-11 school year.

Shannon Cotton, a health and fitness teacher at Liberty Middle School, said recent updates to the FLASH curriculum include subjects Camas area educators haven’t covered before, such as gender identity issues.

“Before we plow through and just start teaching, we really do want to engage the community and make sure that everybody has a voice and sees sort of the clearer picture of what that means and how it’s going to be taught, so that everyone feels comfortable,” Cotton said.

The updated curriculum focuses on giving students the type of sexual health information they need to be healthy and safe, she said.

Camas School District (CSD) leaders have spent two years studying the state’s new health and physical learning standards, which were updated in 2016, and now want to gather community input on the FLASH curriculum focusing on sexual health.

“We have to separate curriculum from content. While we have FLASH, the reality is that … FLASH is simply a material. What makes that material have meaning is what teachers build around that material,” Lisa Greseth, CSD assistant superintendent, said. “So, our focus is really on hearing from our community, including our students — and by that I call them out, because often, as adults, we make decisions about kids without them being a part of that conversation.”

Greseth is part of a core planning committee that includes two health teachers and a community member.

That group will engage with the Student Wellness Advisory Committee (SWAC), which includes community members, parents, professionals and teachers, during the 2018-19 school year to plan sexual health “listening posts” similar to those that occurred in 2018, regarding safety and gun violence in area schools. The listening posts allow participation from all community members, instead of those connected to the district as an educator or parent.

The committee will present information on the district’s current sex ed practices before attendees break into smaller discussion groups with facilitators gathering ideas from participants about how sex ed should be carried out within the district.

There is no set date for the listening posts, but district leaders expect to hold them in March 2019. The committee will use the information gathered at the listening posts to develop a proposal for revisions to the sex ed program, and will present that proposal to the Camas School Board in May 2019.

“This process that we’re building is one where we can all learn together and empower families,” Greseth said.

Washington developed the 2016 health and physical education standards with the goal of providing students with a foundation of health and wellness they could carry with them throughout their adult lives.

Cotton said the state health standards are now more specific than they have ever been.

“If you’re looking at all of the standards — not just the sexual health standards — there are some that are just glaringly more important than others and health just kind of always in the past was about nutrition and (physical education),” Cotton said. “Obviously those are extraordinarily important too, but the information that students were lacking — mental health, emotional health and sexual health — was very obvious with what kids needed and the questions that they were asking and for the individual needs that they had.”

In regard to sexual health, Cotton said Camas teachers have always lived up to the state standards and always hoped for more information to share with students.

“That’s what we’ve always done,” she said. “At the same time, giving families the opportunity to back off if they wanted to, with opting-out options, because it is really important for families to have that opportunity to share information in whatever time they want.”

Camas elementary students learn about anatomy and physiology, growth and development, reproduction, HIV prevention, self-identity and healthy relationships.

In middle school and high school, students delve into anatomy, reproduction and pregnancy, puberty and development, self-identity, prevention, healthy relationships and Washington State laws.

Washington State asks educators to help students in kindergarten start to learn and understand there are many ways to express gender. Students build on this understanding throughout the elementary years, and, by fifth grade, should be able to describe how media, society and culture can influence ideas regarding gender roles, identity and expression; promote ways of showing respect for all people; and identify trusted adults they can go to when they have questions about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Sexual health affects overall health

Dr. Amrita Stark, a pediatrician who has two children at Camas schools, is a member of SWAC, and said sexual health affects everything from student wellness and safety to nutrition, social-emotional health and substance abuse.

Studies show that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect, have true impacts on children, Stark said.

“So, when we look at sexual health, if we take it from the point of view of a child who may have experienced abuse or neglect in their life — not even necessarily sexual abuse — they are much more likely to suffer health consequences again in all of these areas,” Stark said. “They may have symptoms of (attention deficit disorder) and not be able to academically succeed. They often have horrible nutrition and suffer much higher rates of obesity and then lifelong consequences of obesity — diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease. They also could go the other way where we have kids who have higher rates of eating disorders and anorexia. They are risk-takers, in the form of suicidality, a kind of ‘Russian roulette approach’ to life.”

Children who experience abuse or neglect are more likely to use drugs; experiment sexually, often with inappropriate partners; abuse alcohol and tobacco; and experience depression, suicidality and self harm, Stark explained.

“When a sexual health issue becomes an emotional issue, which it inevitably will, then you’re dealing with all the learning issues that go along with that,” Cotton said. “Which we know — study after study have shown — students can’t learn the same because their brains aren’t the same when dealing with emotional issues.”

As a pediatrician, Stark said she starts talking with children and their families about safety when children are as young as 3 years old.

“I think that we’ve seen in the science of looking at sexual abuse and physical abuse, if you don’t have the words to describe your body, what’s happening, how you feel … then you don’t know how to ask for help,” Stark said. “You don’t even know that you need help.”

Stark said she asks children around 9 years old questions about their exercise, diet, experiences around substance abuse and if they’ve ever been touched in a way they didn’t want to be touched.

“Those are hard conversations to have, but I know they’re very important and I have them with families,” she said. “If you don’t ask, then you don’t know. And if you get a feeling, you trust your feeling and ask your child, you push them, you say, ‘no.’ You stop the madness of the day, and you pause and give them your full attention to see what’s going on with them.”

“When I see teens in the office, it’s all connected and you can’t ignore one section. You can’t just black out, ‘Oh, we don’t want to talk about sex,’ and then talk about all this other stuff, because it’s totally connected,” Stark said.

The Healthy Youth Survey, which is administered every two years to students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12, shows that, in 2016, 46 percent of Camas high school seniors had been sexually active, and half of them did not use a condom during their last instance of sexual intercourse.

Stark said she often sees families who want to avoid these conversations around sex and safety.

“School is so critical, and so I think that learning in school is very important in having a safe forum for children to ask questions,” Stark said. “It pains me to see how many families just don’t want questions asked because they feel like that will protect them from bad things happening, when we know that that’s not true, that kids who don’t get sexual education are more likely to get pregnant, get STDs, get violated and taken advantage of. And, if we don’t give them that power of knowledge, then we leave them at risk.”

Cotton gathered information from her former students about their sexual health education in Camas and said most respondents said the information they received was empowering.

“Just that knowledge of using that information to teach their friends when they got to college and just the knowledge is power piece,” Cotton said. “And not being afraid to talk about something. We’re constantly talking about how it’s OK to talk about mental illness, it’s OK to talk about physical illness, and so then why all of a sudden would sexual health be, ‘Oh no, we don’t talk about that.'”

The respondents were former students who are in high school or beyond, and all of them gave examples of how sexual education mattered to them later in their life, Greseth said.

“So, not just the fact of learning, but how they were able to use that learning to keep themselves safe, in both physical and emotional ways,” Greseth said.

Stark said, in her experience, many parents think about having “the talk” with their children, but it should really be more of a conversation parents have with their children throughout their lives.

“You open that door and you let them know that those doors are open. Tragedy befalls all of us in our lives, and there’s only so much you can do to keep yourself safe,” Stark said. “But you can arm your children with the strength of resilience and knowing what their resources are if they find themselves in trouble or hardship, or (find) their friends in trouble or in hardship.”

It takes a village to address sexual health, Stark added.

“I think that us working together is really key,” she said. “And the roll out of (gathering community feedback) is a beautiful way to do it so that the community is a part of it, and it doesn’t feel like some big, mysterious black box, which is important as well.”

Cotton said she thinks the sex ed curriculum Camas has now is great, but that there is always room for improvement.

“My dream (for a sexual health curriculum) would be that parents, community members and students see it as informational, scientifically based information that was inclusive to everyone and provided them an opportunity and the knowledge that they needed to be able to make healthy decisions for the rest of their lives,” Cotton said.

One of the goals for the state is for schools to prioritize the needs of each student by using inclusive language, which is a practice that educators in Camas have already begun.

“About two years ago, there was a first initial training, for things like dividing by boy and girl during gym and realizing that that could be frustrating as a kid,” Cotton said. “It’s as easy as like, ‘Hey, lineup from tallest to shortest.’ Things like that that are simple, simple switches.”

Greseth said she’s seen more educators trying to be inclusive, saying things like, “good morning scholars,” instead of “hi boys and girls,” inside their classrooms.

“In a school district, my job and (an educator’s) job is to make sure that every student who we serve feels like they belong here,” Greseth said. “And no matter what race or ethnicity they are, or no matter how they feel about their gender, whether they’re a student on an (individual education program) or a student in poverty, all of these things, not just one, but all, and how they come together here so that every student feels like: ‘Yes, this was my home. I had friends. I had people who believed in me.’ That really is the large picture of what this conversation is a piece of.”