Utah lawmaker pushes for sex ed reform

Published June 17, 2009 6:59 pm
Proposal » A bill could create two tracks for students.
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One student said her health teacher was afraid to mention the word "condom" in class.

Another said she had a friend who accidentally got pregnant because she didn't understand contraception.

Many of the students who showed up Wednesday for a legislative meeting said they want better sex education.

It's a recurring debate in Utah, where current law promotes abstinence-based education and allows -- but doesn't require -- schools to teach about sexually transmitted diseases and contraceptives.

Now, one lawmaker is making another attempt to expand sex education in Utah with a proposal he hopes will satisfy everyone. Rep. Lynn Hemingway, D-Holladay, is drafting a bill that would require Utah schools to offer two types of sex ed: an abstinence-only track and another track where teachers would still promote abstinence but also talk about contraceptives and STDs. Parental permission would be required for teens to take the second track.

"This isn't a moral issue anymore. This is a health issue," Hemingway said after presenting data on teenage pregnancy and the rising numbers of chlamydia cases in Utah. He hopes to model the proposal after a North Carolina bill.

Opponents, however, said current state law about sex education is adequate. Districts may now teach less than what the law allows but not more. Two districts, Nebo and Provo, teach abstinence only. Parents may now also opt their children out of sex education.

Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, questioned why lawmakers don't provide "guidance and support for parents as opposed to trying to take the role of the parent in a classroom setting."

Dalane England, Eagle Forum vice president of issues, said she likes the abstinence-only first track in the North Carolina bill, but the second track goes too far.

"It's so wide open that there isn't anything you couldn't teach," England said. "They could teach about how to put on a condom. I really don't think that's appropriate language to be using with 15- to 18-year-olds in a mixed setting."

Liz Zentner, state PTA health commissioner, said she also has concerns. She said students should learn about concepts such as contraceptives at home, where they can also receive moral instruction in the matter, and students shouldn't be separated into tracks.

Others, however, championed the proposal Wednesday as a way to make everyone happy.

"There are actually parents who want kids to have comprehensive sex education in schools," said Melissa Bird, executive director of the state Planned Parenthood Action Council.

Though current law allows schools to teach about contraceptives, teachers are prohibited from encouraging their use. As a result, some educators avoid the topic out of fear of crossing that line.

Tanya Smith, a West High parent who went to Wednesday's meeting with her husband and 16-year-old daughter, said she'd like to see her children get a broader sex education in schools.

"I'm not an expert on STDs or contraceptives, and I would appreciate if there was a health educator knowledgeable about the most accurate methods and statistics," Smith said. "Even if [they] don't present information I agree with, at least she's given information and she can come back to me and ask questions about it."

Many teens attended the meeting Wednesday in hopes of persuading lawmakers to reform sex education.

"We all have friends who've gotten pregnant, and we all have friends with STDs," Emma Waitzman, a West High senior, said after the meeting. "It's our right to get health information."

Hemingway's proposal Wednesday followed a bill, HB189, he presented during the 2008 Legislature. That bill, which didn't pass out of committee, would have only required Utah schools to teach about contraceptives and did not include separate tracks. He said he hopes to have the new bill written within the next month and at that point bring various groups into the discussion.

What is current law?

In Utah, schools may teach about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases but are not required to. Teachers cannot, however, encourage the use of contraceptives. It's a fine line that leads some educators to avoid the topic out of fear of violating the law.

Parents may opt their children out of human sexuality instruction, and school districts may teach less than what's allowed by law but cannot teach more.

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