Here’s what Utah students would learn about sexual assault under a new proposal

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, says she wants to help students learn how to set boundaries and protect themselves.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, speaks at a public education rally at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. Moss is running a bill this session that would update how health education is taught in Utah schools.

After nearly an hour and a half of debate, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss’s latest attempt to update how health education is taught in Utah schools passed out of a legislative committee Tuesday evening.

“My sole purpose is to protect children,” Moss, D-Holladay, told members of the House Education Committee, and she thinks her legislation will help students stay safe.

Moss ran a similar bill last year that ran into some roadblocks with debate over the definition of consent, including whether a child can legally give consent to sexual contact under Utah law. Moss revised the bill based on the feedback, getting it out of committee before it ultimately died in the House.

“I can’t tell you how many people,” including many of her former students from her decades of teaching, “told me their stories” after Moss ran that bill last session, she said. “It really is sobering.”

Her bill this session, HB274, would require the State Board of Education to develop curriculum teaching students “sexual assault resource strategies” and “sexual violence behavior prevention,” including that the student “has a right to refuse any kind of physical touch from another individual,” how to set boundaries and their responsibility to respect other people’s boundaries.

This would be taught in an age-appropriate way that is “free from victim shaming,” the bill states, and teaches the early signs of coercion, emotional manipulation and grooming strategies. It may also “include instruction in refusal skills.”

Parents would still have to opt in to this health education, and it would be taught twice, once in middle school and again in high school.

School districts would also incorporate data on sexual assault in their county into health education, according to the bill. This piece, Moss said, came from her co-sponsor, Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper.

Moss read a series of statistics Tuesday to her fellow lawmakers, including that 14.3% of Utah students in high schools experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months.

If you think child sexual abuse “isn’t happening where you live” or “with the kids in the schools, you’re wrong,” said Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah. One in seven Utah children will be sexually abused before they turn 18, according to Thorpe.

“Parents are, and should be, the first line of defense,” she said. “I think that we can agree on that.”

But also talking about these topics in schools can help, according to Thorpe, since most children are abused by someone they know.

The bill received a mixed reaction during public comment. Some adult survivors of child sexual abuse told lawmakers that this kind of education would have helped them when they were younger. Others said they worried whether these lessons would trigger students who have been abused.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said she could not support the bill without “a disclaimer, so parents know exactly what’s going to happen” before allowing their child to participate. Birkeland also stressed problems with “accountability.”

“You see time and time again child molesters let off with a slap on the hand,” she said. “We’re not going to see a change in how people behave until we start seeing accountability for their bad actions.”

Moss responded, “Some of those molesters are the students in the school that need to also know that they have to set boundaries, as well.”

Other lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Adam Robertson, Provo, and Susan Pulsipher, South Jordan, pointed out that the topics outlined by Moss are already largely included in what’s taught in schools.

“It’s the standard, but it isn’t ... in statute,” Moss responded. “So, [educators] can teach it, but it doesn’t mean they all are teaching it. That’s why I decided to do the bill.”

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, urged his fellow lawmakers to look at the statistics rather than what he called the “red herrings in this debate.”

“We in our state are failing our kids,” Waldrip said, “and it’s not by intent, but it is by potentially lack of intent.”

“It is our problem to deal with,” he said. And while Moss’s bill is not a “silver bullet” to fix the issue, it can help, according to Waldrip.

The House Education Committee voted 8-4 Tuesday to pass HB274 out with a favorable recommendation.

As the discussion wrapped up Tuesday night, Moss said she wants students to “get accurate and good and caring information” to help them “develop into really good people” as adults, who are “able to protect themselves.”

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “I’ve always believed that and I will believe that.”

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.