The perennial and often fiery debate over sex education in Utah schools is now likely to be rekindled on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, is drafting a bill that would tailor the state’s sex education curriculum to individual students by creating a suite of optional, web-based lessons as an alternative to classroom instruction.
“Parents could really choose the type of education that they wanted their kids to have a la carte,” Fawson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Or they could just choose to teach their kids in their home and not use the modules at all.”
As the Utah Legislature’s session in January approaches, Fawson said the specifics of his plan are still under discussion. And he is seeking input from such organizations as the Utah Eagle Forum, Pro-Life Utah, Planned Parenthood of Utah, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and Equality Utah, as well as from school administrators.
But critics of Utah’s abstinence-based sex education laws and parents who value the role of a trained classroom educator might not see benefits under Fawson’s proposal.
Fawson, a conservative Republican, said he has no intention of loosening Utah’s content restrictions — including a prohibition on teaching the “intricacies of intercourse” — and moving toward comprehensive sex education.
And while it would not be required by his measure, Fawson said he’d like to see school districts fully embrace online lessons in lieu of traditional classroom instruction on reproduction and human sexuality.
“I’m hoping that most [school districts] will opt to just offer the curriculum online, that it wouldn’t be in a classroom setting,” Fawson said. “If it’s in a classroom setting, you’d still have to excuse the kids who hadn’t opted in.”
In recent years, debates over Utah’s approach to sex education have focused on the competing values of the state’s abstinence-based status quo as opposed to comprehensive lesson plans, which traditionally take a morality-neutral approach to human sexuality and offer greater detail on contraceptives, sexually transmitted infections, consent and sexuality.
State legislators updated the law last year to remove a prohibition on “advocacy of homosexuality” in response to a legal challenge.
Fawson said the threat of future litigation also is a motivator for his bill. The law should be updated with a focus on human reproduction, he said, and less emphasis on the cultural minefield of sexuality.
“Let’s let parents and families have the conversation around the emotions and attraction and what they feel is appropriate,” Fawson said. “It’s better for the state to take a medical or scientific stance on reproductive health than an emotional or feelings-driven stance on the curriculum.”
But several of the groups that have met with Fawson on the bill say the emotional dimensions of sexuality are at least as important as such topics as anatomy and the mechanics of conception.
“Sex education outside the context of morality is kind of like giving a kid a driver’s license who has no concept of the rules of the road,” said Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah. “It’s going to end in disaster.”
Beyond morality, Taylor said the way current law structures sex education does not allow for adequate discussion on the consequences of terminating a pregnancy.
“It is not a benign procedure,” she said. “It takes the life of a human being and often leaves serious repercussions for the woman involved for, potentially, the rest of her life.”
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said students should be taught “to their heart” as much as they are to their brain. Ruzicka said she welcomed a move to online lessons but withheld full support for Fawson’s bill until she was able to see a final version.
“We have good laws that have been in place for many, many years,” she said. “We need to make sure we don’t go too far and put in the schools things that are not appropriate.”
And Marina Lowe, legislative counsel for the ACLU of Utah, said students need access to comprehensive and medically accurate information on human sexuality.
“Oftentimes, that information doesn’t and can’t, for whatever reason, come from a home setting,” Lowe said. “We do need to make sure our young people are equipped with the information they need so that they can make the right choices in their lives.”
More than nothing
Fawson said his bill would increase access to sex education through online lessons and by allowing parents to opt in or out of separate instruction modules.
Currently, students who decline to opt in to all or portions of sex education are excused to the library or another area of the school to complete a generic health assignment instead. Under the new proposal, Fawson said, a student who would otherwise get no sex education could receive the instruction at home, under parental supervision.
“Parents will be able to opt in to any given number of those modules,” Fawson said. “If they didn’t want their child to learn about [sexually transmitted diseases] in school — if they wanted to cover that at home or they didn’t want to cover it at all — that would be an option.”
The Utah Board of Education does not keep a statewide record of the number of students whose parents withdraw them from sex education, but school district officials say those numbers are minuscule.
Brooke Snell, a Granite School District instructional coach, said she saw fewer than 10 students who didn’t opt in to sex ed during six years as a health teacher.
And because sex education is part of health classes and not offered as a stand alone course, the prospect of letting students pick and choose their lessons could present logistical challenges for districts.
Snell said it would be difficult to teach lessons to a group of students with individual content requests. More likely, she said, a teacher would act as a facilitator while students complete their modules in the computer lab.
“That would be probably the most effective way to implement it in a classroom if it was web-based,” she said.
One benefit of the traditional classroom approach, Snell said, is that it gives teachers the ability to verify that students are absorbing the information.
“It gives us more of an opportunity to answer questions that arise,” she said.
Fawson said he will continue meeting with interested groups before the Legislature convenes in January. He is willing to hold the measure for another year, he said, if additional discussion is needed.
Fawson presented the broad strokes of his plan last week to the Utah Board of Education. Some members lauded his focus on reproduction over sexuality, while others questioned whether tweaking the law would create an opening for proponents of comprehensive sex education.
“This is about a bullying tactic to get into our schools an idea that is contrary to the foundation of our state’s values and principles of family orientation,” school board member Lisa Cummins said.
Fawson told the school board he would like to write Utah law according to the strictest morals of the state, but such an approach would not withstand legal challenges.
He also acknowledged a need among students for more accurate information on sexuality and reproduction, describing an anecdotal rumor among some teens that drinking Dr Pepper soda protects against pregnancy.
“Maintaining the status quo, especially in the ever-changing litigious environment that we’re in, isn’t a very good strategy for the state,” Fawson said.
The last time Utah lawmakers debated online sex education
In 2013, the Utah Senate voted unanimously for a bill that would have created at-home sex education resources for parents.
But when the bill reached the House, it was soundly rejected after a debate that poked fun at the idea, including then-Rep. Spencer Cox — currently Utah’s lieutenant governor — describing his cellphone as a “magic box” with access to the type of online lessons called for in the bill.
After a 16-50 vote in the House, the bill’s co-sponsor imitated the sound of a sad trombone amid laughter from his colleagues in the chamber.
Fawson’s bill would also have to compete with other education-related bills for funding, due to the cost of developing an online suite of sex education modules.
“Likely it will have a fiscal note involved in the development of curriculum, probably by multiple vendors,” he said. “That could be the end of it right there.”
Ruzicka, Lowe and Taylor said the meeting Fawson convened on the topic was cordial and collaborative, and the group plans to meet again this month.
But Ruzicka added that with interests on opposite ends of the spectrum discussing sex education, there’s no guarantee that a compromise is possible.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you come together in the middle,” she said, “because maybe the middle is still not satisfactory.”