‘I was just stunned’: Bill updating what Utah students learn about sexual assault fails

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, who ran HB274, said her “sole purpose is to protect children.”

Despite receiving more support this session, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss’s latest attempt to update how health education is taught in Utah schools was killed on the final night of the Legislature, without any debate.

“This is just really important information, and I don’t understand the reluctance,” Moss, D-Holladay, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday.

Moss ran a similar bill last year, which never made it out of the House, even after she agreed to remove a section about teaching about consent — which spurred much of the debate over the bill — in an effort to find a compromise.

In her bill this year, HB274, Moss did not include the word consent, except to say that parents would have to opt in to allow their child learn what she was proposing.

HB274 would have required 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.”

School districts would also incorporate data on sexual assault in their county into health education, according to the bill. And all of this would have been taught twice, once in seventh grade and again in high school.

Another difference this year: Republican Sen. Kirk Cullimore, Sandy, signed on as a sponsor.

“I believe this is important due to the prevalence of sexual assault in our state, unfortunately, and in our schools,” Cullimore told his colleagues Friday on the Senate floor.

After explaining the bill, Cullimore said, “With that, I’m open to any questions.” There were none.

The voting began, with the bill ultimately failing with 10 votes in favor and 18 against. Moss said her intern was texting her updates from the gallery. At first, the board was “going green,” but then she “watched in horror” as senators started changing their votes.

“I was just stunned,” Moss said, adding that some of the young people she worked with on the bill were crying.

HB274 had previously passed out of the House on a vote of 43-25, and it received support from committees in both chambers.

“It was really personal and emotional to me,” Moss said.

Last session, Moss shared that her three daughters encouraged her to run her bill to help prevent other people from experiencing the “horrible ordeal” their family went through, when her daughters were victimized as children.

Moss shared “alarming” statistics this session, including that 14.3% of Utah students in high schools experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months, and how one in three women in Utah will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.

Some of the criticism of HB274 in committee hearings was that parents should be the ones to teach this information to their children. Lawmakers also questioned whether this was already being taught in schools.

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

Moss has stressed that her “sole purpose is to protect children.” The representative said that students want, and need, this information.

When asked if she plans to run a similar bill again, Moss said, “I feel a responsibility to do that.” Because the people who lose with HB274 failing, she said, are “our young people.”

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.