On second try, bill updating how consent is taught in Utah schools moves to House

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss says HB177 would give students tools to protect themselves.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, pictured in 2020, sponsored a bill in the 2021 general session that would update how consent is taught in Utah school. After initially holding the bill, lawmakers voted Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, to pass it out of committee.

Earlier this month, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss revealed to her fellow legislators that the reason she filed a bill this session was because of her three daughters, who were victimized as children.

When her legislation came up for debate again on Wednesday, to Spackman Moss’s surprise, her middle daughter, Jill Thackeray, tuned in virtually.

“I urge you to support this so we can prevent the kind of abuse that too many of us have suffered,” Thackeray told the House Education Committee Wednesday.

After previously deciding to hold on to the bill, which would update how consent is taught in Utah schools, committee members voted 6-5 this week to send HB177 on to the House floor, with two weeks left in the session.

The bill 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.”

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.”

Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, made a couple of updates after hearing concerns from her peers when her bill was first considered on Feb. 8. She changed the definition of consent to be an “agreement to take an action or for an action to occur that is freely-given, informed, knowledgable and given by a person who is not legally prevented from consenting because of the person’s age or lack of capacity.”

The definition acknowledges that children cannot legally consent to sexual contact.

She also added that students will be taught “about the early signs of coercion, emotional manipulation and grooming strategies.”

Parents would have to “opt in” for their children to learn the information proposed in her bill. And Spackman Moss clarified that it would be taught twice, once in a 7th grade health education class, and again in 11th grade.

Affirmative consent is already taught in in high school, but this bill would add consent to middle school, according to Jodi Parker, Utah State Board of Education health specialist.

Each time HB177 has been heard, there’s been discussion about the difference between consent and refusal skills.

“Consent is giving permission for something to happen, to agree to something,” Spackman Moss said. “In contrast, refusal skills, which are already part of the curriculum, are to decline, to reject.”

Consent applies to more than sex, she said, and it’s important for both boys and girls to learn.

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, became emotional as he explained why he supported the bill, commending Spackman Moss for her “tenacity” on working on this tough subject.

“This is not inviting Planned Parenthood or the Pride Center or anybody else into our schools to teach our children,” he said, as some opponents of the bill suggested. Waldrip said “that is a red herring.”

“This is about allowing kids to get information that I wish that they didn’t need at the age of 12. I so wish that our kids did not need this information,” he said. But this is “reality,” and “we cannot pretend that this stuff is not going on. ... We have to deal with it.”

“If you’re a parent that doesn’t feel like you want your kids to hear that ever, that is your right. But it is not the right of parents to stop other kids who need this,” Waldrip said.

Jennie Earle and Natalie Cline, who both are on the Utah State Board of Education, spoke against HB177, saying they were worried about the “malleable” definition of consent. They argued the state should keep its current standards adopted in 2019. Earle and Cline both said they were not speaking on behalf of the state board.

“Our state law requires us to stress abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterwards. Teaching consent takes us in the opposite direction,” according to Cline.

Deondra Brown, a child abuse survivor and part of the The 5 Browns piano quintet, said she supports Moss’s bill. At the hearing Wednesday, she revealed she’s also a rape survivor, from her time at The Julliard School in New York. She’s never spoken publicly about that before, she said.

“I share this with you today because I believe the issues we are discussing would have impacted my experiences as both a child abuse survivor and as an adult sexual assault survivor,” Brown said.

She added, “I believe that if I’d understood consent and had these discussion from the time of my early teen years and forward, I would have had the strength and clarity of mind to know that I was being taken advantage of and to know that I could take back that control.”

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.