At public hearing, concerned Utah parents question whether high school students should learn about condoms

Springville • When Marla Brannum has talked to her three kids about sex, she’s told them, “If you’re going to be stupid, you should at least be safe.”

She might laugh a little at the phrasing when she says it, but she’s serious about the message — Brannum wants her kids to use protection and to know which protection to use if they’re going to be in a physical relationship. It’s something she’s been sure to teach them, but she wishes it had been reinforced more in their health classes, too.

“My kids thought sex ed was a joke,” she said, noting her oldest is now a junior in high school and she’s had two others graduate from Utah’s Alpine School District, the largest in the state. “Educators treat it like such a taboo subject.”

So Brannum was happy to see in the latest draft for Utah’s public health education standards, which include what students learn about sex, that teachers are asked to spend a unit comparing different contraceptive methods, including condoms, and their effectiveness. Before, the discussion of protection was more of a superficial overview with minimal references. Now, it will include some more details.

“I love that you’re putting that in there,” she said during the last public hearing on the standards Wednesday night. “You can’t just tell kids, ‘No.’”

Utah parents and teachers have been invited to comment on the new standards after the state Board of Education voted to release them in early November for 90 days of feedback. In the final of the six hearings, which was held in Springville and included Utah County’s Nebo School District, much of the focus was on what students would be told about sex.

Though health classes focus on more topics, that has always been the flashpoint in this conservative state.

The board released the standards after much debate among its members over whether the new guidelines go too far in talking about sex or say too little about abstinence. “I have grave concerns that comprehensive sexuality is creeping into this,” suggested Lisa Cummins at the time. She represents Herriman and southwest Salt Lake County and attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Community members and educators also raised their concerns there that children will be learning about the body’s reproductive anatomy too early. In the new standards, that discussion has been moved up to second grade.

“We have a hard enough time when we try to use those words with our fifth-graders,” said John Allan, a teacher in the Nebo School District. He helps with the maturation program taught in fifth grade and suggested he “couldn’t imagine trying to get our second-grade teachers talking about anatomy.”

Brannum responded by saying she believes children at that age, between seven and eight years old, don’t see it as anything more than a word to describe something. By fifth grade, she added, it’s been whispered about and kids have learned different words from their friends.

“In second grade, the elbow is the same as the breast and the penis,” she said.

Another parent, Autumn Cook, disagreed. “I think you have families with different senses of modesty,” she said to Brannum. “We all know it’s not just anatomy. It’s this special section of anatomy.”

Cook suggested that the topic be handled by parents so it’s not “opening up the door for unnecessary discomfort.”

Molly Garfield, a middle school health teacher in Alpine School District, helped write the new standards. She said the discussion of anatomy was moved to an earlier age, in part, so that a child experiencing sexual abuse would know how to describe it. But overall, she said, the discussions about sex will continue to be in line with the state code, which permits an “abstinence-based” sex education program.

That means teachers must promote abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. It also prohibits encouraging "premarital or extramarital sexual activity." And while there will be discussion of the use of contraceptive devices, there can be no advocacy for them.

“Just to alleviate your fears,” Garfield said, “we focus first on abstinence as the only 100-percent effective method.”

Cook, a parent of four in Lehi, asked that the standards be updated to also promote abstinence as having emotional health benefits.

Parents will continue to be required to “opt in” their children for the sex education unit. And despite concerns about what the new standards might allow, the guidelines cannot change the requirement for an overall message that promotes chastity.

Still, it is the first comprehensive update to the state’s health guidelines for public schools in 20 years.

About 25 people attended the Wednesday meeting in Springville, a small town south of Provo, with parents and teachers addressing their concerns about revisions to the draft for more than 90 minutes.

“These are out here not just to say, ‘do I approve or disapprove,’ but ‘this is what I like and this is what I don’t like,’ ” said Joleigh Honey, who works for the Utah Board of Education and helped run the hearing. The board will continue seeking feedback and accepting responses on its survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/2vcpnzw.

Some supported the standards for including a new health section on “protective factors of healthy self” that focuses on teaching decision-making and kindness. Others said they didn’t appreciate that the standards say failure is “normal.”

“Why are we telling kids it’s normal to fail?” asked James Goddard, who has four kids in Alpine School District. “I don’t think it’s normal.”

There was also a short discussion on whether health teachers should talk about suicide. In the new standards, it comes up first in sixth grade. Some parents were concerned that discussions might glamorize suicide and drive the rate up higher in the state — suicide is already the leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 17 in Utah.

“I worry about that. I really do worry,” Cook said. “That’s not what I want my kids being exposed to when they’re 11.”

Janae Duncan, who works at the Utah Department of Health, said while it’s “alarming how many kids we have dying by suicide and how young they are,” mental illness should be talked about and not treated with stigma. “We shouldn’t be afraid to have those conversations,” she said.

One father suggested creating an “opt in” system for discussions on suicide similar to what’s in place for sex education.

Garfield, who helped write the standards, added that talking about suicide may help other students learn the warning signs when they see them in their peers. All of the new guidelines, she said, are intended to have the underlying message that students’ lives are valuable and they can deal with difficult challenges and they can set goals.

The standards 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 for high school students include discussion of consent, “refusal skills” to help kids decline sexual advances and the dangers of pornography.

And for the first time, the new standards will include lessons for kindergarten through second grade.

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