Back to Skills

In Utah, a Stinging Debate Over Sex Education

Back to Skills

Utah might be the Beehive State, but bees – in conjunction with the birds, that is – could be dropped from the required public school curriculum. Lawmakers are considering making sex education instruction optional, a move that some opponents say poses a serious risk to students’ health.

The Utah PTA opposes the bill. So does Cougar Hall, a Brigham Young University assistant professor who told the House Education Committee he trains health teachers. “It’s immoral to withhold life-saving information from a segment of our population because (the information) doesn’t fit our value system,” said Hall, according to the Salt Lake Tribune’s reporting on the hearing.

The bill would let local districts decided whether to offer sex education. Utah PTA President-elect Liz Zentner testified at the hearing that the bill would open the door for “special interests” to hijack the curriculum by pressuring school boards to opt out.

The proposed legislation moved forward on an 8-7 vote, after lawmakers decided to soften some of its provisions. The original language would have banned discussion of sex outside of marriage, contraception and homosexuality. Now the revised bill “prohibits only the advocacy of those activities, along with instruction in the ’use’ of contraceptives,” the Tribune reports.

While the bill is headed to the floor of Utah’s House of Representatives, there’s no shortage of public debate. The Tribune’s Web site had garnered more than 300 comments. The newspaper issued a scathing editorial against the bill, arguing that “there is only one thing worse than the kind of tepid, inadequate sex education that teenagers receive in Utah public schools. And that’s no sex education at all.”

This isn’t the first time in recent history that Utah lawmakers have wrangled with sex education. In 2010, a bill that would have clarified that teachers could talk about contraception failed to become law. And in 2008, a middle school teacher was removed from the classroom amid allegations that she had answered students’ questions about masturbation, homosexuality and oral sex. Outraged parents said the teacher –a veteran with more than 30 years experience–had gone too far, and unsuccessfully urged lawmakers to make it a crime for educators discuss sexual activity beyond what the curriculum explicitly allows.

I’m told that some people in Utah believe that teachers are already keeping quiet on discussing some sex-related issues with students because of the fine line between what the law allows and the prohibition against “advocacy or encouragement.”

Sex education laws, and the required curriculum, vary widely from state to state. The majority of states have an “opt out” clause for families, and in Nevada and Colorado parents must give permission for their children to take part in the class.

Utah’s proposed legislation comes shortly after a coalition of health and education groups launched a campaign for clearer and expanded standards regarding what students are taught about sex, according to the Associated Press.

The coalition recommends that students as young as second grade should know the “correct names” for both male and female anatomy. By the end of the fifth grade students should know that sexual orientation is the “romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same gender or a different gender.”  There should also be standards for anti-bullying education, the coalition says.

Almost half of all teens have had sex by the time they finish high school, said Deb Hauser, executive director of Advocates for Youth, one of the three founding members of the coalition that created the proposed sex education standards. Research over 30 years has also shown that young adults who receive “age-appropriate” education that includes both abstinence and contraception are more likely to not only wait to have sex but to also protect themselves when they do have sex, Hauser said.

“In the U.S. we often approach adolescent sexual development with fear, shame and denial, withholding vital information or focusing only on abstinence,” Hauser said, in a written response to a request for comment on the proposed Utah law. “We need to do a better job-in our classrooms and in our homes-of providing young people with all of the information and skills they need to develop into sexually healthy adults.”