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My view: Parents and schools must unite to teach sex-education effectively

By Mary Ann Kirk

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Last year, Gov. Gary Herbert responsibly vetoed HB363, which would have restricted classroom teachers' ability to talk about contraception and its limitations. A large majority of the public understands the role of trained health educators in providing accurate information about human sexuality concepts that go far beyond that topic, including responsible decision-making and healthy relationships for unmarried teens.

However, both state statute and state school policy acknowledge that parents are the primary sex educators of their children. There is no way this topic can be adequately covered in a single maturation program in the fifth and sixth grades and a four hour unit given once in seventh and eighth and once in grades nine and 12. The big question remains — how do we engage parents in this conversation?

When national studies repeatedly validate that parents have 10 times the influence on their child's sexual behavior compared to health educators, do parents know where to find and how to use educational tools they need to fulfill their critical role in this discussion?

They certainly did not have great role models on how to have this conversation because my generation and my parent's generation didn't talk about these things with us.

A legislative interim committee recently listened to potential legislation proposed by Sen. Stuart Reid to provide a course for parents on how to talk to their children about human sexuality. The public is tired of this topic, and educational funding is strained. But at some point, the public needs to come to grips with the fact that many parents are not taking responsibility for this discussion for a variety of reasons: too busy, not knowing what to say and when, and thinking that the schools are taking care of it for them are just a few examples.

I have been involved in this discussion for more than 20 years, serving as the first and only Utah PTA AIDS education coordinator and serving on the USOE committee that developed the first secondary sex ed curriculum for the state. That first curriculum included a printed parent-teacher resource guide that acknowledged the partnership between home and school and featured discussion points for both teachers and parents for each curriculum objective.

That resource still exists and is available on the USOE website for both junior and senior high instruction. But very few know that it is there.

We have taken the time to create student curriculum and resources for classroom teachers. When and who is going to take the time to empower parents to discuss this topic with their children long before they reach their teenage years and secondary school instruction?

Parents themselves need to step up and take personal responsibility. But it is fairly obvious they need a little nudge. It appears that a perfect opportunity exists for more focused collaboration between school and parents on this topic. While an online course for parents may or may not be the magic answer, it is easy to post a teacher's curriculum guide and even a teacher's lesson material on the web with today's technology.

Can teachers include assignments for students and parents to do together as part of the curriculum unit? Can elementary schools provide simple educational presentations to parents where resources and basic teaching tools can be shared and discussed before or after the maturation program when parents are already in attendance? I say, why not? With the onslaught of sexual messages our children are dealing with, parents need all the help — and nudging — they can get.

Mary Ann Kirk has served as a PTA volunteer in various capacities for nearly 30 years where she has been involved in both state and national PTA resolutions and legislative policies regarding the topic of human sexuality and healthy relationships for teens.

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