House votes against bill updating how health education is taught in Utah schools

Sponsor of HB177 called out school board member for spreading ‘blatantly false’ information.

(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 have updated how health education is taught in Utah schools. The House voted it down Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

The Utah House voted down a bill Friday that would have updated how health education is taught in schools.

Before her fellow representatives made their decision, Carol Spackman Moss tried to dispel misinformation she said had been swirling around her bill and explained why she pushed for this legislation.

“I care deeply about the health and safety of our young people,” said the Democrat from Holladay, who’s a former teacher. “I think I fell short as a mother because I didn’t give the information that I might have given, had I had more education myself.”

Spackman Moss previously revealed in a committee hearing that her three daughters were victimized as children. This bill gives students tools and resources that she said she wished her daughters had.

Members of the House rejected HB177 by a 39-31 margin. With a week left in the session, it’s unlikely to come back for discussion again.

In the spirit of compromise, Spackman Moss made adjustments to her bill after collaborating with her peers across the aisle. She removed a portion that taught about consent, including what does not constitute consent.

Spackman Moss also added a section that specified how parents would have to “opt-in” for their children to learn what was proposed in her bill in 7th and 11th grades. And before deciding whether their student will participate, parents would receive information that included “a warning that the topics or materials may cause distress to a student who has experienced sexual assault.”

What HB177 would have done was require the state Board of Education to develop curriculum for teaching students about tools they 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.”

“I have no nefarious motivations in this bill,” Spackman Moss said. “And in fact, in my opinion, it is not only wrong, but it’s dangerous for people in elected positions, like a state school board member, to send out things that are blatantly false.”

“That’s been a big hindrance to this bill, and it’s not right,” she added.

Spackman Moss appeared to be referring Natalie Cline, a member of the Utah state school board who’s drawn controversy since she took her seat in January. In a Facebook post Thursday, Spackman Moss said that Cline “is urging her followers to send out emails that include a video from the national Planned Parenthood website” saying this video could be shown in Utah schools if her bill passed. Spackman Moss wrote, “THIS VIDEO HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH MY BILL.”

When asked for comment, Cline said in a text message Friday afternoon, “Kids need skills to protect themselves from grooming both online and in person. We already have programs in place to do this,” which makes the bill “unnecessary.”

Cline included links to the state board of education’s human trafficking and child sexual abuse prevention programs, which “are based on best practice and have been thoroughly vetted by many groups,” she said.

“Neither of these programs include teaching youth to ‘consent’ to sexual behaviors,” Cline said. Instead, students are taught skills about how to get out of a situation when they feel unsafe and uncomfortable, to not let others touch their private parts (unless medically necessary), about body ownership and signs of grooming.

“What are we missing?” Cline said.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said on the House floor that he and other lawmakers have been barraged with emails, including with this video. King clarified that Planned Parenthood is not behind the bill. He encouraged his colleagues to ignore “absolutely false” information and to read what the bill actually says.

Even though Spackman Moss removed references to consent from her bill, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, commented Friday that consent “is a legal term” and “a loaded term,” which he did not think teachers are equipped to give instruction on.

Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake, proposed adding a line stating that students would be taught about the “illegality of sexual activity with minors.”

Concerns about potential confusion on how consent was previously defined in Spackman Moss’s bill, compared to how it is defined in state criminal code, led to the House Education Committee initially voting Feb. 8 to hold HB177. After Spackman Moss made revisions to the bill, acknowledging that children cannot legally consent to sexual contact, the committee voted Feb. 17 to send it on to the House.

On Friday, Nelson also said he thought this topic was better left to parents to teach their children about.

Spackman Moss said she respects that parents teach values, but said that schools provide information and can help start conversations. Her bill would give children skills they need to have successful, healthy relationships in life, including in marriage, she said. If anything, HB177 helps promote Utah’s focus on abstinence, according to Spackman Moss.

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, said he supports the legislation and appreciates the work Spackman Moss put into it.

“The beauty of this bill,” Miles said, is that it allows parents to choose how they want their children to learn this information.

“What we’ve been doing in this state so far in terms of teaching our kids these vital skills is falling short” Spackman Moss said, pointing out that Utah has a “serious problem” with sexual abuse, rape and sexual violence. For instance, “rape is the only violent crime in Utah that is higher than the national average,” according to the Utah Department of Health.

Consent is about more than just sex, according to Spackman Moss. It’s about personal autonomy and how to respect one another’s boundaries, she said.

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.