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Amendments to gutted sex education bill may be restored in House

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 9:25 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's law over human sexuality instruction in public schools would remain largely unchanged after a House committee blunted a bill intended to prohibit schools from teaching teens about contraception.

But the debate over HB363 is far from over with nearly three weeks left before the 2012 Legislature adjourns.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, said Friday that his primary concern is curriculum that is developed outside the school environment.

"I feel very strongly that Planned Parenthood curriculum should not be in our schools. I'm going to do what I can to get it out of there," he said. Because children are required to attend school, policymakers have "a great responsibility to protect their innocence and do all we can to lift them up."

Wright brought his granddaughter to Thursday's committee hearing to represent that "innocence" testified that he began looking into changing the law after he saw materials developed by Planned Parenthood being used as part of maturation programs at some schools in the state. He also disagreed with a slideshow that the State Office of Education developed about contraception because it showed pictures and brands of condoms.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, who amended the bill to remove language banning talk of contraceptives, said Friday that he expects that Wright will attempt to reinstate the language. "That's really the only purpose and reason to run the bill," Powell said.

As introduced, Wright's bill would have forbidden Utah health teachers to mention contraception. Schools would have had to choose between teaching an abstinence-only curriculum or not teach it at all.

The amendment passed by the committee prohibits the "advocacy" of contraception, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage.

Although Powell made the motion to amend the bill, he voted against sending the amended legislation it to the House for its consideration.

"I amended the bill so if it passed, it would at least have minimal impact," he said.

But he opposed the bill because he believes in local control of schools.

"I don't like language on these types of subjects that say to school boards, 'Thou shall not do.''' he said.

As Powell talked to his constituents, including parents and local school board members, not one person raised a concern about the current policy and practice. "That tells me things are working fine in my area," he said.

Ron Burnside, health curriculum specialist for the Granite School District, said current law enables parents to decide whether they are comfortable with the curriculum.

School districts set their own standards for human sexuality instruction, but local school board policy may not exceed what is allowed under state law.

Four school districts offer abstinence-only curriculum:  Canyons, Jordan, Nebo and Provo. State law allows abstinence-based instruction. "Teachers are required to present a strong abstinence message, but the law allows instruction in areas of contraception and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases," according to the Utah State Office of Education website.

Current policy requires parents to sign "opt in" permission slips allowing their child's participation. Utah is one of three states with this requirement.

Permission slips are supposed to be given to parents two weeks before the instruction begins. This allows parents time to review the curriculum and teachers' web pages, Burnside said.

Granite School District conducts regular trainings, which allow teachers to share their approaches to difficult questions that students might ask that transcend the parameters of state law and local policy.

"It’s a real fine line when you're teaching health. You don't want to cross the line what you can and cannot say," he said.

Burnside said he receives occasional telephone calls from parents regarding the district's abstinence-based curriculum.

"Some say 'Just don’t talk about it and it will go away.' Others say 'Why don’t you tell kids more so they're informed and they have the information they need?'"

Steve Asay, a father of a West High School student and who has served on school community councils in the Salt Lake School District for nearly 20 years, said the state's sex education curriculum hasn't been a front-burner issue in recent years.

As parents, he and his wife have had four children take part in West High's health class.

"We signed off on it because we have no problem with the way it's been taught," Asay said. "We've had three other kids who've gone through the class, and we felt comfortable with it."

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, said he was "a little disappointed that we're having to rehash sex education, which has been working pretty well in the schools and still gives parents the ability to opt out of that if they so choose."

Wright said he wants to address concerns about local control of schools, but he is adamant about better controls over school curriculum.

"I'll have some other eyes look at it to see if we can have some consensus on what language actually means."

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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