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Controversial sex ed bill was designed to remove Planned Parenthood from schools

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 6:06 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers say a controversial sex education bill was designed to end collaboration between the State Office of Education and Planned Parenthood.

But representatives from both organizations say collaboration ceased last year.

After weeks of heated debate, rallies and petitions, the fight for sex education in Utah continues as opponents and supporters of HB363 await the decision of Gov. Gary Herbert. The bill — which bans instruction on contraceptives, intercourse and homosexuality — has drawn the full gamut of responses, from parents who stress that discussions on sexual activity belong solely in the home to others who worry the bill would keep potentially life-saving information from students who may not receive it otherwise.

Herbert is expected to decide on the bill next week and his spokeswoman said Friday that the governor is thoughtfully deliberating HB363 and will announce his decision when he makes it.

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, sponsored the bill and has said that in addition to reasserting the role of parents in the education of their children, he was motivated by what he perceived as inappropriate material being presented in schools. Specifically, he mentioned material developed by Planned Parenthood and links on the Utah State Office of Education website that directed users to Planned Parenthood content.

Wright could not be reached for comment Friday but said after the bill cleared the Legislature that HB363 would "help us set a path in the future where our curriculum doesn't get hijacked."

Sen. Margaret Dayton, the bill's Senate sponsor, said Wright had tried for years to have the website links taken down. But it was not until HB363 favorably passed the House Education Committee that the two organizations were "decoupled."

"It was the links between the State Office of Education and Planned Parenthood that urged (Wright), in reality, to tighten up the abstinence-only teaching," Dayton, R-Orem, said.

But Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said those links were removed nearly one year ago. They were removed after a Bountiful parent complained about the content of a maturation presentation produced by Planned Parenthood called "Growing Up Comes First" and the apparent endorsement of that program on the office of education's website.

After the bill cleared the Legislature, Galloway said there was talk that a lingering image of the education board's logo may have inadvertently remained somewhere in their system. But she said their website and materials had since been searched "with a fine-toothed comb" to remove any and all references to the office of education.

"When the whole fracas happened last spring, we thought we had removed every recommendation by the State Office of Education," Galloway said.

Galloway said "Growing Up Comes First" is used by a number of school districts in their fifth- and sixth-grade maturation programs and for years, Planned Parenthood worked with the board of education to make the program available to schools. Galloway said there is nothing objectionable in the material and added that districts were free to incorporate or abandon portions of "Growing Up Comes First" as they deemed fit for their students.

"I find it to be a very well-respected curriculum and it is sensitive to local communities," she said.

The program focuses on the developmental changes that accompany puberty, she said, and educates students on topics like acne and body hair and gender-specific subjects like menstrual cycles and erections. Typically, schools separate students by gender and present only the information relevant to each group.

Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for Instructional Services with the State Office of Education, confirmed that any links to Planned Parenthood on their website were removed prior to the legislative session as a response to the complaint filed last spring. She said the links in question had been put up in 1996 and took some digging to find on the website. But in the years since their posting, she said the pages they directed users to had changed to contain potentially offensive material.

"We were surprised by the link," she said. "There were some aspects about it that were walking the line."

A bill nearly-identical to HB363 was sponsored by Wright in 2000 and was subsequently vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt at the urging of the State Board of Education. As part of that veto, a number of rules were set in place regarding sex education, including a requirement that parents opt-in their students in districts where information on contraceptives is presented, a requirement that all sex education materials be approved at the district level by a committee of parents and the district school board, and a mechanism for parents to lodge complaints.

Current law also permits school districts to implement a curriculum that is more conservative than what is allowed by law and four districts currently teach an abstinence-only curriculum. If signed into law, the remaining 37 districts in the state would be required to change their sex education courses, or discontinue them entirely.

Weber State University has also announced that the bill would require it to discontinue concurrent enrollment courses that currently serve 850 Weber and Davis county students. 

Hales said the only documented complaint that reached the state office in the 12 years since those rules were enacted was that of the Bountiful parent last spring addressing the website links. She also said that while there is no hard data available, it is estimated that between 92 and 95 percent of parents grant permission for their children to attend sex education and maturation courses.

The office of education has not taken a formal position regarding HB363, but State Superintendent Larry Shumway has said that curriculum decisions should be made at the local district level.

Dayton said regardless of when the links were removed, HB363 would prevent similar endorsements or collaboration between educators and Planned Parenthood from occurring in the future. She maintained that the bill is good policy for Utah, allowing for the continuation of biological and physiological discussion in classrooms and an emphasis on abstinence before marriage.

"We have a clinical discussion but anytime you get into talking about contraceptives or alternative lifestyles or other things, then you're going into a counseling session," Dayton said.

Galloway, however, said that "Growing Up Comes First" is only used by elementary-age students for maturation programs. Planned Parenthood, she said, has no involvement in the curriculum of students in middle and high school sex education courses despite being frequently targeted by proponents of the bill.

"Many of (Wright's) disparaging comments are directed at Planned Parenthood so I've got to believe that he doesn't like us," she said.

She said that much of the debate surrounding the bill has given rise to misunderstanding of what is actually being taught.

"All that was ever mentioned was that there is such a thing as contraception," she said. "The whole discussion to me has set a very interesting portrayal of what happens (in schools)."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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