Just what should be done with sex education?

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 7:00 p.m. MST

A common sentiment expressed by opponents was that while parental involvement is ideal, not all parents may be willing, able or suited to adequately address the issues surrounding human reproduction with their children. The bill also fails to address where students from dysfunctional or non-communicative homes are to turn for information and support.

Wright said he shares that concern but stressed that those situations do not justify supplanting a parent's role. If students are not able to have their questions answered at home, he said there are organizations and educational materials available to them.

"Planned Parenthood is in town," he said. "It shouldn't be part of our education system. Do they have to have an education on sex to get into college? I don't think so."

In discussion leading up to the house vote, and in interviews after, Wright specifically cited materials and curriculum produced by Planned Parenthood as inappropriate for schools and a motivation behind the bill.

Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, had similar comments, saying that there are other areas of support for students to turn to with questions, such as religious institutions, if they are unable to discuss the topic at home. Menlove introduced an amendment to the bill, which specified that districts who choose to continue sex education courses must develop their curriculum with input from parents.

So far, the bill has drawn the most vocal opposition in a relatively quiet legislative session. The Utah PTA was joined by the LDS Democratic Caucus in issuing statements against the bill the day after it passed the house. The LDS Democratic Caucus supports programs that advocate abstinence, but called the bill "irresponsible" and "short-sighted," adding that students are best served in making choices when they possess as much information as possible. In their statement they say the bill sets Utah students up to fail.

"It seems like a naive approach to sex education," caucus outreach chairman Craig Janis said. "The idea of my children learning that people have sex and when they do, they use a condom – I don't think that would be problematic."

Even if each district continued  to offer sex education, Zentner said that an abstinence-only curriculum falls short of what students need to know.

"It's OK as long as they realize the limitations of contraception," she said. "Not only do parents feel uncomfortable discussing this in the home, they don't know how. The kids probably know more than they do."

Janis also questioned if every parent is a reliable source on the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases or the use of contraceptives. He said sexual education ais not simply a personal or familial issue, but rather has public health implications that affect all of society.

Wright disagreed, saying that parents have all the expertise they need.

"I would have no more confidence in a trained professional than I would a parent," he said. "What does a trained professional know that a parent doesn't?"

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said that he spoke with his constituents, who widely supported the bill.

He also said that while he's never taken issue with what his own children were learning, the parents he spoke with felt they had lost control of the education of their child.

"They were worried that things would be taught in school that they didn't want taught to their child," he said.

King, however, described the House debate as "obnoxious," saying that relatively little discussion was given to the current law's opt-in requirement and even less addressed where students were expected to get information should their parents fail to be proactive about sexual education in the home. In his mind, he said, the bill's statewide definition of what is morally right and wrong runs counter to the small-government conservatism that many representatives claim to believe in.

"It was a very uncharacteristic thing we did," he said. "Very big government, very one-size-fits-all, very 'we-know-better-than-you'."

Zentner expressed hope that parents in the "silent majority" would contact their senators before the bill reaches another vote. Janis agreed, saying that a dialogue between officials and their constituents only leads to better government.

"The more our elected officials hear from us the less likely they are to pass silly bills like this one," he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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