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Opinion: Utah kids deserve better sex education

Our children’s right to sex education is too vital to be compromised by opt-in policies, which create barriers and hinder students from accessing essential information.

(Alexie Zollinger | Amplify Utah) The Gender and Sexuality Student Resource Center and the Center for Health and Counseling offer informational materials regarding sex education to Salt Lake Community College students.

Parents support sex education in schools; however, opt-in policies put students at risk of not getting this information at all.

Most people agree that home is where kids should first learn about sex, sexuality and what it all entails. And although many parents are willing to embrace the discomfort of that first (possible) awkward conversation, there are parents and caregivers that choose not to talk to their kids about sex. For those children who do not get “the talk” at home, the classroom becomes their only source of information.

When it comes to sex education most states are opt-out, which means that parents can remove their kids from the class if they do not want their children to attend the lesson. However, Utah is one of the few opt-in states in the country.

So, what happens when parents do not provide written permission for their kid(s) to attend the sex education section of their health class?

Opt-in policies create obstacles that hinder students from accessing the sex education they have a right to receive. With an opt-in policy, teachers need written permission from a parent that allows the student to attend a sex education class. Moreover, this policy creates a burden on school staff because those forms need to be processed before the class. The opt-in consent excludes children from sex education because sometimes those forms never reach the parents, or they are not returned to school.

Nationwide, STIs have significantly risen in the past 20 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 505% increase in primary and secondary syphilis cases, and a 481.3% increase in chlamydia cases. These numbers are high, and research shows that a pre-pandemic decreased effort in STI education could have led to this rapid rise in cases.

Utah is no exception to this, and since 2020, STIs have increased by 291%. In Utah, youth aged 15 to 24 represent only 16.3% of the population, but they accounted for almost 60% of reported chlamydia cases in 2020.

Studies have demonstrated that medically accurate and comprehensive sex education reduces the risk of sexual risk behaviors and STIs. These statistics underscore the need for comprehensive sex education in order to address and mitigate the alarming rise in STIs, both nationwide and in Utah, particularly among youth. This is one of the many reasons why schools need to switch to opt-out.

Supporters of the opt-in policy state that this puts parents in control of the information kids receive on sex education. The reality is that parents have a say under both opt-in and opt-out policies. With the latter, schools are required to inform parents which sex education lessons will be taught, and the parent has the responsibility to inform the school if they do not want their child to be present. According to SIECUS data, only 5% of parents exercise their option to remove children from sex-education classes.

Studies also show that parents support sex education in schools. But what happens when a parent forgets to sign the opt-in form? In my time as a sex educator, I remember students being eager to be in class, yet their parents worked multiple jobs and often forgot to sign the written permission. Many of these students came from marginalized backgrounds and their parents were trying to make ends meet. Here is where the system is failing our students and the parents, too. By switching to an opt-out, schools ensure that most students receive the information they need to make healthy decisions.

Our children’s right to sex education is too vital to be compromised by opt-in policies, which create barriers and hinder students from accessing essential information. The alarming increase in STIs emphasizes the urgency of making sex education an opt-out approach, ensuring that students have the knowledge and tools they need to make informed decisions. This change not only empowers parents, but supports those from marginalized backgrounds who may face additional challenges under the current system.

It is time to prioritize our kids’ well-being and make Utah an opt-out state.

Meda Del Carpio-Morgan

Meda Del Carpio-Morgan is a Utah resident, former health educator and current public health doctoral student at Tulane University.

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