Sex education bill: How would it change instruction?
Some things about a recently passed sex education bill are clear.
It's obvious that HB363 would allow school districts to drop sex education entirely or require them to teach abstinence-only should they keep it.
But what does abstinence-only mean? And how would it be different from what's taught in Utah classrooms now? What can parents and teens expect?
To gauge the bill's potential impacts, The Tribune spoke with Frank Wojtech, health and physical education specialist at the State Office of Education; Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who sponsored HB363; Cougar Hall, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University who trains health teachers; and Brandie Balken, Equality Utah executive director.
HB363 isn't law yet, and the governor likely won't make a decision on whether to sign the bill into law until next week. But if it does become law, here's what Utahns could expect:
What is taught in Utah sex education classes now, under current law? • Sex ed is one of six main subject areas covered during a semester-long health education class typically taken by 10th-graders, said Wojtech. Teachers spend about 4-6 hours covering sex education, toward the end of the semester. Topics covered include the anatomy and physiology of the reproductive systems, fertilization and how to have positive dating relationships, among other things, according to the state's current health core curriculum.
The Utah curriculum is considered by many to be "abstinence-based" or "abstinence-plus" education, meaning abstinence is stressed as the best option but teachers may also discuss contraception. HB363's abstinence-only approach doesn't allow for lessons in contraception. Comprehensive sex education, which Utah doesn't permit, goes even further than abstinence-plus, allowing teachers to encourage students to use contraception if they have sex and describe how to use contraceptives.
Utah school districts may now choose between offering abstinence-plus or abstinence-only. The Jordan, Canyons, Provo and Nebo school districts already teach abstinence-only. And parents must give permission for their children to take any sex education class, though very few choose to exclude their kids from the lessons.
Sex education teachers, while in college, must take a one-semester course on how to teach sex ed, Wojtech said. Then they must participate in a four-hour State Office training session about what they may and may not teach. School districts and charter schools also must provide additional teacher trainings at least once every three years, he said.
How would HB363, if it becomes law, change what teachers are allowed to say about contraception? • Now, Utah teachers may describe different types of contraceptives, how they work (such as by preventing transfer of bodily fluids) and their success and failure rates, though they may not advocate their use or explain to students how to use them.
"I could never say, 'If you are going to be sexually active, please wear a condom,' " said Hall, the BYU assistant professor.
Under HB363, teachers would no longer be allowed to talk about contraception during sex education at all, said Wright, the lawmaker who sponsored HB363.
"All we're doing is pretending," Wright said. "The only way you can protect yourself from those [diseases] is abstinence so let's not give them a pretend method."
That change has spurred much of the opposition to HB363 including veto requests from the Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association and nearly 40,000 people who had signed an online petition as of Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, groups such as the Utah Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute have encouraged Utahns to support HB363.
Hall, who opposes the bill, said he believes in abstinence before marriage, but that contraception should be taught in schools as well. He said he doesn't buy the argument that because contraceptives aren't 100 percent effective they shouldn't be included in sex education lessons.
"Very few things in life are 100 percent," Hall said. "We teach young people to wear seat belts, and yet we unbuckle dead people every day in America. It's still the best approach. â¦ I think it's educational negligence that we withhold this lifesaving information from young people."
If it becomes law, how would HB363 change what teachers are allowed to say about homosexuality? • Under current law, sex ed teachers may define homosexuality and explain that homosexual people deserve the same respect as heterosexuals, Wojtech said. But they may not advocate for or encourage it, and they may not talk about the mechanics of homosexual sex, just as they may not talk about the intricacies of heterosexual sex.
HB363 would prohibit "human sexuality instruction or instructional programs" from including "instruction in, or the advocacy of" homosexuality. It's a seemingly subtle wording change from current law, which prohibits instruction in "the advocacy of homosexuality."
But some worry the change will lead to a ban on all mentions of homosexuality in schools. Some bill opponents have called HB363 the "don't say gay bill."
Wright, however, said the ban on instruction about homosexuality in his bill would apply only in sex ed classes and not such classes as government or literature. He said there's no reason to talk about homosexuality during sex education classes.
"That has nothing to do with health," Wright said. "Homosexuality does not relate to sexuality. It's a whole different thing."
But Equality Utah's Balken and others worry that teachers will avoid talking about homosexuality at any time out of fear they may be violating the law something that could affect gay teens who are at high risk of being bullied, she said.
"Unfortunately, most teachers don't have the luxury of time to be assessing and understanding the nuance of statute, and unfortunately, I think what will happen on the ground is teachers will simply avoid the conversation," Balken said.
Wojtech said it's unclear to him from reading the bill whether teachers would be prohibited from mentioning homosexuality even during a separate health unit on communicable diseases. He said he's not sure how a teacher can talk about the spread of diseases such as HIV and AIDS without mentioning homosexuality, as that's just one of the high risk groups for those diseases.
Wright, however, said it would be OK to mention homosexuality in that context, such as to say homosexuals contract "a high rate of disease."
"I can write the curriculum really simply," Wright said. "If you're homosexual you have a high degree of [contracting] some STD. What else do you need to know? What else do I need to teach?"
Balken, however, said it would make more sense to give teens preventive information than to try to scare them.
"I think that it's unfortunate, and it doesn't serve our community when we rely upon stereotypes that gay and transgender people are more likely to be susceptible to sexually transmitted infections or that gay and transgender people are more likely to be promiscuous," Balken said. "I think it's critically important our teens and obviously our adults have access to accurate, factually based information when we're talking about health and science."
Who will ultimately decide exactly what is taught in sex education courses? • As with most education laws, it would be up to the state school board to write a rule outlining the specifics of how schools should implement the bill, Wojtech said.
He said a committee composed of parents, legislators, teachers, district level health specialists and representatives from the Utah Department of Health would work to write the rule to reflect the bill if it became law. That rule would then go before the state school board for members' input and approval.
Rally planned for Wednesday
The Alliance for a Better UTAH, a nonprofit, progressive group, is organizing a rally for Wednesday to urge Gov. Gary Herbert to veto HB363. The bill would allow school districts to drop sex education and require those that keep the classes to teach abstinence-only. The rally will be held at the Utah Capitol at 5 p.m. in the Capitol rotunda. The group also plans to deliver to the Governor's Office before the rally a print-out of an online petition also urging him to veto the bill.