Utah’s sex education standards will be updated for the first time in 20 years. But teachers will still be ‘stressing abstinence.’

Before giving final approval to a new set of guidelines for what Utah students should learn about sex, the state school board made a few last-minute changes Thursday to ensure the focus in classrooms will remain on chastity.

Members approved an added line asking teachers to “discuss the risks of indiscriminate sexual behavior on overall health.” They debated whether the updated standards said too little to encourage getting married before having children — what one called “the success sequence.” And they changed language so that lessons that earlier read only “including abstinence” would instead be “stressing abstinence.”

“We are a pro-family state, and we need to keep that in mind,” said Utah Board of Education member Lisa Cummins, who also said the standards should do more to require parents be involved in the discussions.

Sex education has always been a flashpoint in this conservative state, though health classes focus on more topics. With the vote Thursday, the teaching guidelines have now passed the last hurdle and will next be studied and put in place in public K-12 schools across Utah.

It will be the first comprehensive update to health education standards in the state in more than 20 years.

It’s taken more than two years just to get to this finished draft.

Utah state code currently permits an “abstinence-based” sex education program, which promotes celibacy as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or disease. Teachers are prohibited from encouraging "premarital or extramarital sexual activity.” That hasn’t changed with the new standards, but they do include a bit more information on evaluating the different methods of contraception, including condoms and birth control pills.

During the board’s nearly four-hour discussion last week, member Jennie Earl questioned whether the standard for talking about those methods should say they “prevent” sexually transmitted diseases or only “reduce” the risk of contracting one. “I just want it to be medically accurate,” she said.

Earl, who represents northern Utah, brought up more than a dozen other recommended amendments, most focused on affirming parental rights. Most were defeated.

The standards tell students that if they need help or guidance for any health concern, but particularly abuse, they should talk to a “trusted adult,” which is defined to include parents, clergy, coaches and more. Earl suggested the text should read “parent or trusted adult” to be clear that the state puts parents first. The discussion displayed the ideological breakdown of the board with the more conservative members agreeing with Earl and the more liberal and moderate members siding against.

Board member Jennifer Graviet, whose district includes Ogden, responded: “When you’re looking for someone to trust, it’s not about a title or role.” Students, she added, come from diverse family backgrounds where some have a single parent, are raised by grandparents or don’t have a responsible or engaged caregiver at all; some experience abuse in their own homes. So the term “trusted adult,” Graviet said, applies universally.

Alisa Ellis, a board member representing Heber City, contended, though, that the language puts “family as an afterthought” and supported an amendment to add a paragraph at the start of the standards for every grade level to have students involve their parents in conversations about sex.

Graviet said that’s “headed down a slippery slope” where math and English classes don’t have the same requirement to discuss the Pythagorean Theorem or the moral of a novel with a kid’s mom or dad. Still, the addition passed.

Whatever the board changes, urged Terry Shoemaker, representing the Utah School Boards Association, the standards need to get done and move forward.

“We need this to be finished,” he said. You're talking through the nuances of some things in ways I think you're overdoing it. … You're expected to be careful about these things, and I appreciate that, but this needs to be done because this has been sitting on the table for quite some time now.”

The board of education voted to review the health standards in July 2017, and a writing committee has met more than 30 times to draft new ones. There have been six public hearings for parents and teachers to weigh in, too. The board has also collected more than 1,000 comments.

The approved guidelines cover six sections of education, including mental and emotional health and nutrition. For the first time, the new standards will include lessons for kindergarten through second grade. Parents will still be required to “opt in” their kids for the sex education units in middle and high school.

Some of the bigger changes include a discussion on addiction to pornography and a new note that says “recovery is possible.” The board is also pushing lessons on kindness before any discussion of bullying. And teachers will be starting some basic anatomy lessons in elementary school to help kids who may need to report that they’re being touched inappropriately.

Three members, including Cummins, still voted against the standards, saying the discussion of sex should happen in the home and not in the classroom. “Many of these go beyond the scope of the school’s job,” added board member Alisa Ellis.

But 12 members voted in favor, and the room erupted in applause at the passage.