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Bill requiring sex ed classes for parents elicits debate, skepticism

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 6:47 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Under the terms of a bill being drafted by one Utah lawmaker, public schools would be responsible for teaching not only students about human sexuality, but also training parents on how to teach the subject to their children.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden said he intends to sponsor the bill in the upcoming legislative session. The bill would make the Utah State Office of Education responsible for preparing and distributing resources on sex education to parents, as well as hosting seminars around the state where parents could receive face-to-face training on human sexuality instruction.

"Many parents don't feel entirely comfortable," Reid said. "There's reluctance to do that and what's happened is we've turned it over to educators to take that responsibility on what is the most intimate topic in the lives of our children."

The bill is only in draft form, but still managed to elicit debate and skepticism from members of the Education Interim Committee on Wednesday. Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, expressed concerns about drawing educational resources away from academic core subjects, like reading, writing and arithmetic. Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, suggested there is already ample resources available online for parents wishing to have a dialogue about sex with their kids.

"There's a tremendous amount of information for parents who want to broach this with their children," Anderson said. "This seems to me to be a government solution for a problem that really isn't ours to own."

Reid emphasized that his intent was to not simply create an online resource but to have some form of setting where parents uncomfortable with the subject of human sexuality could receive face-to-face training from trained educators. But that immediately drew questions about the costs of such a program.

"I don't want to add responsibility to the state office without giving them funding," said Rep. Patrice Arent. "It's hard for me to believe it would be minimal costs."

Reid said his motivation behind the bill stems from a fundamental belief that children should learn about sex from their parents, not their teachers, and that those discussions should take place in the home, not in schools. During the debate and discussion surrounding last spring's controversial HB363 — which was vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert but would have removed discussion of contraception from public school sex education — Reid said he heard from several parents who felt they were ill-equipped to adequately teach the subject to their children at home.

He expressed surprise at the amount of discussion his idea had generated, but emphasized that he intended to pursue the legislation and hoped to receive the committee's support.

"I had no idea this was going to happen, none at all," Reid said. "I thought it was an inane piece of legislation. I'm not sure that I'll ever touch sex education again but this is my effort to respond to a real dilemma."

During the 2012 Legislature, both houses passed HB363 despite opposition from the education community. Parents in the state responded with petitions and by flooding the governor's office with thousands of calls for a veto.

Herbert said he decided to veto the bill because it took away choices from parents, who currently have the ability to opt-out their students from sex ed courses. School districts do not keep track of the number of parents who remove their students, but it is estimated that 90 percent of parents statewide allow their children to participated in school-offered sex education.

Supporters of HB363 often said that discussions about sex are better handled between parent and child. But opponents were quick to counter that many parents were not willing, and perhaps unable, to teach their students about human sexuality, particularly in regards to contraceptive methods and disease prevention.

The idea of training parents in sex education was briefly considered during the last legislative session. At one point, human sexuality was added to a bill, HB420, that directed schools to hold an annual parent seminar on topics like teen violence, drug abuse and mental health.

The amendment drew several objections in the House of Representatives and ultimately sank the bill. In the Senate, support for HB420 fizzled after Senate President Michael Waddoups expressed his concern that the seminars would place an unnecessary burden on schools.

Rep. Steven Eliason, who sponsored HB420 and sits on the Education Interim Committee, said he intends to reintroduce the legislation during the upcoming session.

Members of the education community have expressed tentative support for Reid's bill. Deputy Superintendent Martell Menlove said Reid sought input from the state office of education. He expressed appreciation for the senator involving his office in the discussions and said materials already exist that could be incorporated into training material. But Menlove said more conversations would be necessary regarding the costs of administering training sessions to parents or creating an adaptable online resource, as Reid had described during the committee meeting. 

Dawn Davies, vice president for legislation with the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said the PTA supports any effort to provide education resources to parents, provided that it doesn't draw resources away from schools.

"The funds are spread thin already," she said. "We want to make sure its funded."

Davies would like to see parents better-informed about the resources that already exist, such as programs offered by religious groups, organizations like Planned Parenthood and even parent-training offered by the PTA.

She also expressed some concerns about whether state-sponsored sex education seminars would draw a large enough number of parents to be cost effective. Similar training offered by the PTA sees a "limited number" of participants, she said.

Reid was adamant that his bill would not alter the sex ed curriculum currently taught in schools. He also said he has spoken to parents who had expressed a willingness to participate in a face-to-face training, but being non-mandatory it was possible the number of attendees would not warrant multiple training sessions around the state.

"At that point, like any other bill that may be ineffective, you'd have to reassess what it's worth," Reid said. "But one thing it does do is take all the excuses away from parents."

Reid said he was not particularly worried about the questions and comments he received from the education committee. The bill is still early in its life and he wants committee members' input and feedback as he works with education officials to refine the language of the bill.

"You can never predict from one meeting what will happen," he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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