Conservative groups storm Utah school board to protest students asking ‘spontaneous questions’ about sex

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gayle Ruzicka, political activist and leader of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum is joined by supporters as they "storm" the state school board meeting on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, during the public comment period to talk about their concerns with sex ed.

Several conservative groups packed the Utah Board of Education meeting Thursday to protest a state law that says teachers can answer “spontaneous questions” from students about sex.

One woman called that allowance “inappropriate and potentially graphic.” Another said it opened the possibility for educators to get into “grossly irresponsible” material — and stray away from discussions on abstinence. Several speakers worried about what might be taught on abortion.

“If one child asks about oral sex or something explicit and the teacher answers it, it doesn’t mean the other 30 kids want to hear it,” said Robert Woods, who has four boys in public school. “Why can’t the teacher just say ‘That’s outside our curriculum. Please ask your parents if you really want to know’?”

The demonstration was organized by the Utah Eagle Forum and Pro-Life Utah. Members of the two groups signed up for nearly every slot during the public comment period, sent emails to those on the state school board and carried signs that said, “While you were reading this a baby was aborted.” One woman wore an American flag T-shirt. One man shouted “Amen.”

There were about 30 protesters filling the room with some standing along the walkways.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said they decided to speak out after she discovered a teacher’s guide on the Utah Board of Education website that is meant to help educators navigate how to answer questions about sex.

State code says: “Utah educators may respond to spontaneous student questions for the purposes of providing accurate data or correcting inaccurate or misleading information or comments made by students in class regarding sex education.” Their answers, it notes, must still abide by state law, which permits an “abstinence-based” sex education program.

That means teachers must promote celibacy as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. They are prohibited from encouraging “premarital or extramarital sexual activity” and cannot talk about sexual techniques. And while there can be discussion of the use of contraceptive devices, there can be no advocacy for them.

The guide that Ruzicka found is dated October 2018 and falls under “teacher resources.” It provides commonly asked questions and recommends answers that educators can use to respond.

“Most of the questions I cannot read to you,” Ruzicka said. “It would be inappropriate and embarrassing for all of us.”

The list consists of 52 questions divided into categories of diseases, puberty, menstruation and sex. The examples include: “What is a wet dream?” “What is oral and anal sex?” “Can girls get pregnant if they have sex standing up?” “Will I be a better lover if I have more partners?” “What is masturbation?”

Many of the speakers were also upset by one question asking to define abortion, which answered: “It is the spontaneous or medically induced removal of the contents of the uterus during pregnancy.”

Deanna Holland, the vice president of Pro-Life Utah, an anti-abortion group, said that is “unacceptable and medically inaccurate” and it should instead be defined as “the intentional killing of an unborn child.”

She added: “Glossing over information on abortion is tantamount to approving of it.”

Holland, a mother of five, said one of her daughters is in a seventh grade health class and she doesn’t want her to hear these questions — which she believes could come up at any time and not just during the sex education unit which Utah parents are required to “opt in” their children for.

The protest came just a few months after the state school board gave final approval to a new set of guidelines for what Utah students should learn about sex. It was the first update in 20 years — but did not change the focus from abstinence.

It also follows a new report from the Salt Lake County Department of Health that found teenagers are contracting sexually transmitted diseases at high rates, leading the director to say that sex education isn’t working here.

“Teens need accurate, realistic and comprehensive STD education — whether that’s at home, at school, at church or in another venue appropriate for the discussion,” Gary Edwards said last week.

At the Utah Board of Education meeting Thursday, though, parents argued that they want their children to have less information — or at least be told to talk to their families when they have questions instead of being directed to ask their teachers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gayle Ruzicka, political activist and leader of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum is joined by supporters as they "storm" the state school board meeting on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, during the public comment period to talk about their concerns with sex ed.

“For all of these years, parents have been opting their kids into sex education classes and not being told the truth of what’s being discussed,” Ruzicka said. “Most parents don’t want their children to be taught about these alternative sex practices.”

She asked board members to distribute the commonly asked question list to all parents, so they’re aware of the discussions. She also requested that the board put an end to the practice of allowing spontaneous question, though that would require a legislative change.

The public comment period at school board meetings is typically limited to 10 minutes, but so many people signed up to speak Thursday that it was extended to 20 minutes. Additionally, so many signed up before the meeting that no more were allowed on the speaker list. A note outside the doors alerted that signups for public comment were closed.

“We only have so large of a spot. And it’s only fair,” said board Chairman Mark Huntsman, telling a woman she would not be able to talk to the board because she wasn’t on the list.

Board members don’t respond to public comment, so it’s unclear if they will take any action based on the feedback. Several of the speakers also sent emails to Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

A stock version of the letter circulated by the Utah Eagle Forum read: “The worst part is that by the time parents find out, if they ever do, the children will already be damaged.”

Clarification, Sept. 5, 8:47 p.m. • An ambiguous descriptor for the conservative groups that attended a Utah Board of Education on Thursday was removed.