Just what should be done with sex education?

Published: Saturday, Feb. 25 2012 7:24 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Sex education took the stage during Wednesday's session of the Utah House of Representatives as lawmakers debated a bill that would emphasize a parent's role in the sexual education of their children by potentially removing the role of public schools altogether.

The bill, HB363, passed 45-28 in the house – 11 Republicans joined all 17 House Democrats in opposition – after a long debate that reached levels of discomfort befitting a class of teenagers discussing human sexuality. Representatives shied away from defining terms like "erotic behavior" and the degree to which, if at all, instruction on contraceptives and intercourse should be presented in the classroom.

The bill was essentially neutralized at the committee level, amended within a fine line of current law, but was amended on the House floor with stronger, more conservative language. In its current form, HB363 would replace Utah's abstinence-based education law with an abstinence-only law. Under the new guidelines, teachers would be able to answer questions presented by their students but would not be allowed to incorporate instruction on sexual intercourse, erotic behavior or the use of contraceptives as a means for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections into the curriculum. The bill also allows for school districts to discontinue sexual education courses entirely.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, voted against the bill and was vocal in his opposition during the House debate. He said he was disappointed in the results of the vote and said that the bill could potentially hurt the image of Utah government.

"I think that was a bill and that was a vote that added support for the idea that up at the legislature we're detached from reality," he said. "We're really giving into fear and our worst knee-jerk reactions."

King pointed to the testimony of bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, where instruction on contraception was described as teaching students "how to have sex and get away with it" as insight into the skewed view of sex that some representatives have and allow to inform their positions.

Since the vote, King said some of his colleagues who voted in favor of HB363 have approached him privately to express their opposition to the bill. He suggested that a fear of conservative challengers in the upcoming elections may have been a motivator in the bill's passage and applauded the courage of those Republican representatives who spoke out against it.

Before becoming law the bill would have to pass through the state Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 22-7. If, however, electoral pressure was a factor in the House, HB363 could face a greater challenge in the Senate where longer terms weaken the threat of an impending election.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that he was aware of the bill but that to this point it had not been addressed at length by Senate Republicans.

"I think it will have a vigorous debate," he said. "There's 29 senators and probably 29 opinions on it."

Current law permits instruction on, but not advocacy for, sexual intercourse and the use of contraceptives and requires parents to opt-in their children in districts where those topics are presented. Most districts contacted by The Deseret News did not have figures readily available, but Davis School District spokesperson Chris Williams said that over the years there's been "less than a handful," of students who have not participated in the district's sex education program.

Liz Zentner, Utah PTA President-elect said that she seldom hears from parents who are concerned with what their children are being taught in school. She suggested that legislators may be basing their decision on the complaints of a minority of Utahns.

"We oppose the bill officially," she said. "The health teachers do it in a very good way and stress abstinence. It's fine, it doesn't need to be changed."

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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