Will Herbert's veto reset the conversation on sex education?

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 10:54 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — With an override of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's veto of the controversial sex education bill unlikely, the battle over how or what to teach students about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and human sexuality moves into a new stage.

Friday after Herbert announced his veto of HB 363, he told KSL and the Deseret News that it is time to "push the reset button" and begin a new conversation on sex education.

So where does the dialogue begin and who will emerge to lead the discussion?

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-West Jordan, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he and colleague Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, plan to begin the conversation anew, perhaps as soon as April's interim committee sessions.

Osmond said he wants to bring together a broad coalition of interested groups, stakeholders, educators, parents — anyone interested in the issue, he said — to come up with a high-tech solution that might satisfy most people's concerns.

He envisions an online, standardized way of teaching students the more sensitive aspects of human sexuality that parents would have to opt-in to, that would be developed by the state and that would avoid concerns many have that individual teachers have too much sway over how the subject is taught.

Osmond supported HB363, but acknowledged that legislators failed to adequately involve educators in the process.

Utah PTA president-elect Liz Zentner said the PTA — which opposed HB363 — had proposed a similar process in a recent email to Herbert, but the proposal did not gain any traction with lawmakers.

The governor did not make himself available to answer questions Saturday. In an email, the governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said: "We certainly encourage all interested parties to work together.  If anything, this is a legislative issue for the stakeholders to resolve. We still have hundreds of other bills the governor is reviewing and on which he will take action. The Legislature has their role and the governor has his." 

Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who sponsored HB363, said the issue is not about starting a conversation, but about stopping a movement. He said he is concerned that proponents of teaching contraception in schools are part of a national movement to include standardized sex education as part of the core curriculum.

"National groups are pushing a national core on sex education," Wright said. "This is not a Utah topic. This is far beyond Utah."

But bringing a core curriculum of sex education could not happen unless somehow sex education were slipped into language skills or math courses, Zentner countered, which are the only areas addressed in Utah's new Core Curriculum Program.

Wright said it is "intellectually dishonest" to teach teenagers about contraception at all, because abstinence, not contraception, is the only sure way to prevent STDs or pregnancy before marriage, he said.

"When they are ready to get married, they can be taught how to use contraceptives," Wright said.

Utah's current sex education system works well for many, said Margaret Wahlstrom, Utah PTA spokesperson. The state office of education approves material that conforms with state law and from those materials approved by local district text approval boards. Those boards have parents and teachers as members and can decide what works best for their areas.

"What we have now allows for an appropriate way for parents to get together with their schools," to decide how to best teach about sex in their schools, Wahlstrom said.

In effect, any ongoing conversation about sex education is already happening at the local level, she said. 

"I'm not saying that you never look at it again," Wahlstrom said. "I think the majority of the parents like the way it is now in most districts." Still, there are ways to improve sex education in Utah, such as teaching about the emotional costs — even suicide — that can result from teenage sexual activity, she said. 

Zentner noted that a similar idea to Osmond's, to standardize teaching about STDs and contraceptives through a state-designed PowerPoint presentation, had been tried a couple years ago. But conservative groups were not involved in developing the program, so they opposed the effort, she said.

"My goal is to create education that is articulated from a scientific perspective and from a health education perspective," Osmond said. The facts of contraception and sexually transmitted diseases speak for themselves, and will teach that sexual abstinence before marriage is indeed the best choice, he said.

"Let the moral conversation be at home with the parents."

E-mail: lbrubaker@desnews.com

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