Tom Smart, Deseret News
Many have commented on the pragmatism exemplified in this year's legislative session. But in the latter half of the session, the Legislature asked an important question that caught many by surprise and has sparked considerable debate.
The question: How should we teach children about human sexuality in the public schools?
This is an important question about a profound responsibility. How we teach about sex is more than an issue of biology or public health. It affects the emotional and physical well-being of our children. It influences culture, family life and sexual mores. For all these reasons, it is an understandably emotional issue for Utah's families.
Given the current curriculum's core focus on abstinence and fidelity, given the current requirement for parental notification and approval, given the very high rates at which parents have opted into the current program and given ongoing broad public opinion in favor of what is taught in the current curriculum, it was surprising that the Legislature felt a need to push through additional restrictions on how Utah schools teach human sexuality.
In an ideal world, accurate, authoritative and wise teaching about human reproduction and guidance about the wonder, challenge and moral responsibility entailed in human intimacy would be the exclusive domain of families.
But we live in a less than perfect world. Because of dysfunction, dissolution, cultural attitudes or misinformation, not every family will provide clear guidance to their children about this vital aspect of their lives. In a culture that is saturated with manipulative, misleading and inaccurate messages about sexuality, we believe that a well-designed public school curriculum on health and human sexuality can be an important resource to families in their private efforts to teach children about sexual health and responsibility.
Indeed, factual, developmentally appropriate and abstinence-focused curriculum delivered by trained teachers can complement and reinforce parental teaching on these matters. And for those parents who, for whatever reason, might feel otherwise, the current system's opt-in structure gives them full control over how their children are taught these topics.
This year's restrictive legislation, known as HB363, came with the best of intent. It appreciated that abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage are the surest safeguard of physical and emotional health as it relates to intimacy.
But HB363 also came with a large dose of misunderstanding. The discussion of the bill was clouded with inaccurate characterizations of the abstinence-focused content of the current curriculum and confusion about serious issues surrounding a separate elementary school maturation program that is not even affected by the bill. The bill inexplicably wrested from local control this aspect of curriculum that seems particularly suited to local parental involvement. Moreover, there appeared to be no natural demand for the changes. The effort to legislatively overhaul a program that didn't seem broken created confusion and the potential for serious unintended consequences.
How and what we teach our children about human sexuality in our public schools is an issue of vital public trust. Although this year's bill on the issue followed a regular and timely legislative process, our sense is that the public felt the issue passed them by without a full vetting. Because of the need for broader agreement and understanding and the need to provide parents with more and better options in their partnership with schools on this topic, we appreciate more time and deliberation on the issue. We believe that more discussion will provide better results and better understanding about aims on which most of Utah's families can agree. It is with that hope for better results that we welcome Gov. Gary Herbert's veto of HB363, not to punish good intentions, but to ensure the kind of deliberation that will secure the best results.