Inspired by her daughters, Utah lawmaker will keep fighting to update how consent is taught in schools

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said her bill would give students tools to protect themselves.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, pictured in February 2020, proposed a bill in the 2021 session relating to how consent is taught in Utah schools. The House Education Committee voted Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, to hold the bill in committee.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss admitted to her fellow legislators Monday that she was “a little bit nervous” to start her presentation. It wasn’t because of the hundreds of emails she’d received about her bill. It was because her three daughters were watching.

It was their encouragement, their urging for her to “step up” to help prevent other people from experiencing the “horrible ordeal” their family went through, that helped her decide to file her bill in the first place.

Spackman Moss’s daughters were victimized as children, she told members of the House Education Committee. That is why the former teacher decided to sponsor a bill to update how consent is taught in Utah schools.

“I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t provide them with the tools and the language to be able to come directly and say, ‘This is happening to me, and I don’t want it to happen,” said Moss, a Democrat from Holladay.

HB177 would require the state Board of Education to develop curriculum for teaching students about consent, including what does not constitute consent; the tools people can use to get help for the physical and psychological effects of sexual assault; and to help them understand that “no one has the right to touch an individual in a sexual manner if that individual does not want to be touched.”

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This would be taught in a way that is “free from victim shaming,” the bill says, would be focused “on developing a student’s communication skills so that the student is able to communicate about, and show respect for, other individuals’ boundaries.”

The committee ultimately voted to hold on to the bill and not send it to the House floor. Spackman Moss said she’s not done, though, and she has plans to revise her bill and try again.

Defining consent

In Spackman Moss’s bill, consent means “freely given, informed, and knowledgable agreement to do something or for something to happen.”

But Utah’s criminal code says that “a child is incapable of giving consent,” Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, pointed out. “I know it’s ... a legal kind of technical argument, but it’s important to me.”

The legal definition is a protection for children. In a criminal prosecution, an adult accused of sexual abuse or assault can’t argue a child or young teenager agreed to the contact if they were too young to consent.

Spackman Moss said she’s since talked with Snow and is working on how to adjust her bill, to have her broader idea of consent in other situations coexist with the legal definition already in state law for crimes.

Supporters of the bill explained to the committee that consent is not limited to the sexual realm. It could, for example, involve a kid not wanting to give a person a hug or choosing to share toys on a playground.

“I don’t think there’s ever too early a time to learn about consent,” said Ashley Fredde, president of the Utah chapter of We Will, an organization “dedicated to the prevention and mitigation of sexual assault.”

Consent is about boundary setting, communication skills, healthy relationships and body safety, according to Dr. Kelly Woodfield, a third-year OB-GYN resident at the University of Utah. Teaching about consent will help address Utah’s “problem with sexual violence,” she said.

One in 10 adults report being the victim of sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes, according to the Utah Department of Health. And “rape is the only violent crime in Utah that is higher than the national average,” the department states on its website.

In order to prevent abuse from happening in the first place, “we have to educate,” said Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah.

“This is uncomfortable to talk about with our kids and in these committee meetings, for sure,” she said, “...but it’s so critical for safety for children.”

How consent is taught

Spackman Moss said she received many emails from people who only saw the first draft of her bill, which said this consent education would be taught to students as young as first grade. The current version, though, applies to students in grades 7 through 12. Spackman Moss said she changed the age range after talking with experts, including Thorpe.

Parents would also have to “opt in” for their children to learn the information proposed in her bill.

Spackman Moss said her “motivation is not to get some liberal curriculum into the schools,” as people have accused her of doing, “but rather to give kids information that they can use to protect themselves.”

Some committee members questioned what the bill would add to the Utah Core State Standards for Health Education, whic were adopted in April 2019. Under those standards, high schoolers are already taught about affirmative consent, refusal skills and characteristics of healthy relationships.

According to Jodi Parker, Utah State Board of Education health specialist, this bill would add consent for middle schoolers, and “the training for teachers would be updated.”

Gayle Ruzicka, of the Utah Eagle Forum, and a few other parents who opposed the bill argued that the standards should stay how they are currently.

“I think that the language we currently have is adequate to get where we want to go. And then let’s let parents, with the local board members and other people that are on that committee, kind of fine-tune it and get more specific,” said Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan.

Spackman Moss said she believes that “parents are the primary educators of their children’s sexual education,“ but that “schools can open the door for conversation.”

“Many kids grow up in conservative, religious homes, as I did,” she said. “And the conversations were not there ... for me.”

Spackman Moss repeated that she wishes she’d done “a better job with my daughters so they would have ... more easily felt they could come and talk to me and have the language to do that.”

Although the bill hit a roadblock Monday, Spackman Moss said she knew her daughters were “proud of me.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here