Utah parents and teachers will be invited to comment on what kids should learn about sex — a flashpoint in this conservative state — following Thursday’s release of a draft of new health education standards.

The Utah Board of Education narrowly voted to unveil the standards for a 90-day public review after a tense debate among members who disagreed over whether the new guidelines go too far in talking about sex or say too little about abstinence. It’s the first comprehensive update to the state’s health standards in 20 years.

“I have grave concerns that comprehensive sexuality is creeping into this,” said board member Lisa Cummins, who represents Herriman and southwest Salt Lake County.

She was among five members who voted not to release the standards. She had proposed sending them back to a committee for further rewriting and review, saying they were incomplete and didn’t define enough terms, leaving teachers free to interpret what they can talk about.

“What I’m seeing is red flags all over this,” Cummins added. “Our state is a family-based state, and we need to uphold that.”

Utah state code currently permits an “abstinence-based” sex education program, which promotes abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or disease while including limited discussion on contraception and reproduction. It also prohibits encouraging "premarital or extramarital sexual activity."

Despite concerns from Cummins and others about what the new standards might allow, the guidelines cannot change the requirement for an overall message that promotes chastity. That would break the law.

“Abstinence is always our first lesson. It’s what we would like the students to all know and understand,” said Jodi Kaufman, the board’s health and physical education specialist. “We’re not advocating for the use of contraceptive devices.”

The board of education voted to review the health standards in July 2017. They cover six sections of education, including mental and emotional health and nutrition. One of the biggest changes to the sex education section came from the Legislature, which voted this spring to have updated lessons include discussion of consent, “refusal skills” to help students decline sexual advances and the dangers of pornography.

The writing committee that drafted the standards also included lessons on internet relationships — which weren’t in the 1997 version and weren’t added during 2009 updates for middle and high schools — and information for abuse victims. And there will be a new health section on “protective factors of healthy self” that focuses on teaching decision-making and kindness.

For the first time, the new standards will include lessons for kindergarten through second grade. And they will cut out redundancies so that each year builds on what was taught before, instead of repeating modules on human anatomy or communicable diseases. Middle and high school lessons will remain largely the same.

Parents will still be required to “opt in” their kids for the sex education unit.

“If a parent does not want their student to ever learn about contraceptives, they could opt their student out,” Kaufman said.

Several board of education members expressed concern about the new standards not clearly defining “abstinence” and “trusted adult,” who students are told to report to if they experience bullying or abuse. Member Alisa Ellis, representing Heber City, argued “this draft is not quite ready for prime time.”

She said the writing committee, made up of 30 members from various health organizations across the state, completely changed the most current version from what it looked like a month ago. Kaufman defended the group’s work, saying members met more than 30 times from March to September to get the draft right.

Brittney Cummins, no relation to Lisa Cummins, voted to release the standards Thursday rather than debate a few “little tiny words.”

Our schools "desperately need updated health standards,” added Carol Barlow Lear, who represents Salt Lake City.

Nine members of the board voted to release the draft guidelines to move the process forward. With that decision, there will be five public hearings spread between November and December where residents can talk about changes they’d like to see. They can also express any concerns in a survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/2vcpnzw.

The writing committee will consider those comments for further revisions before final approval by the board of education, which is months away.

“This is a draft,” Kaufman said. “It’s going to change.”

Public hearings scheduled  
The state Board of Education has scheduled five hearings to take public comments about proposed changes to health education standards.
• Monday, Nov. 26 at Davis School District, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
• Tuesday, Nov. 27 at Uinta School District, 4 to 6 p.m. 
• Thursday, Nov. 29 at Iron County School District, 4 to 6 p.m.
• Tuesday, Dec. 18 at Cache County School District, 4 to 6 p.m.
• Wednesday, Dec. 19 at Jordan School District, 4 to 6 p.m.