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Lawmakers and conservative groups who want to prohibit talk of contraception in health classes or allow school districts to eliminate sex education altogether have said those subjects are best left to parents.
But Utah's largest school districts say parents rarely keep their children from attending sex education lectures.
Last year in Granite School District, 0.5 percent of junior high students and 0.2 percent of high school students who were enrolled in health classes opted out of sex ed. The numbers include nearly 5,785 students at all but two of the district's 23 secondary schools, which did not respond to a Salt Lake Tribune request for data.
"We have very few parents who opt out, because they want their kids to hear this information," said Liz Zentner, president-elect of the Utah PTA. "They don't feel like they know all the details about STDs, how they're spread and how to prevent them."
Currently, Utah law allows districts to teach abstinence-plus sex education. That means teachers promote abstinence from sex before marriage but also may share factual information about sexually transmitted diseases, including how to avoid them, and the effectiveness of contraceptive methods. They cannot discuss the intricacies of sex or advocate or demonstrate the use of contraception, however. Parents must sign permission slips that outline what will be taught before their children can participate.
But a bill that has passed the Utah House would require sex education be abstinence-only, prohibiting instruction about contraception. It also would allow school boards to scrap human sexuality education altogether in their districts.
During debate on the House floor, bill sponsor Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, questioned whether parents should turn over the responsibility of teaching their children about sex to someone else even if parents feel they aren't up to the task.
"Let me ask each of you as fathers and mothers, if you feel you can't do a good job, are you comfortable turning that over to someone else?" Wright asked his fellow lawmakers. "I am not comfortable turning these sensitive subjects over to anyone else."
Dalane England, a vice president of the Utah Eagle Forum, which has endorsed Wright's HB363, said earlier this month that these "very private, sacred issues" are best handled in the "sanctity of the family and the home."
The bill is now in the Senate Rules Committee, which can decide whether to send it on to a full floor vote. Sen. Margaret Dayton, the bill's Senate sponsor and chairwoman of the rules committee, said the bill will be heard on the Senate floor this week. She said she is working on some changes but declined to give specifics.
Alpine School District, the state's largest, did not have numbers about its opt-out rate, but spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley said "the majority" of parents participate.
Millard School District, which serves students from Wright's hometown, also has a high participation rate, said Scott Bassett, curriculum director. The district's human sexuality committee discusses the opt-out rate each spring.
"In the last three years, no one at Millard High or Fillmore Middle has opted out. There have been a handful at Delta High and Delta Middle," Bassett said.
John Robison, supervisor of Davis district's health programs, said a handful of students opt out in Davis County each year. He suspects the rate would be similar to Granite's. In 20 years of teaching health at Bountiful and Davis high schools, he never once had a parent opt out.
"Parent choice is alive and well within the current policy," Robison said. "We're not promoting anything other than abstinence. … Factual information that needs to be given is given."
No matter how many years teachers have been in the classroom, they get training on how to teach human sexuality every three years. If a student asks a question that may require an answer beyond what's allowed by Utah law, teachers are directed to tell students to discuss the issue with their parents, Robison said.
"This [bill] would be a real step backward if it passes," he added.
Margo Jones, a health teacher at Taylorsville High, said she worries about her ability to give teens "good information" if she could no longer discuss contraception. She has known a number of teen girls who have become pregnant, often believing myths such as not being able to get pregnant the first time they have intercourse.
A recent report found that teen mothers in Utah, age 15 to 17, were more likely than their counterparts nationwide to believe they couldn't get pregnant at the time they had sex, or that they or their partner were sterile.
When asked why there's a need for abstinence-only sex education when so few parents keep their children out of existing classes, Wright said he doesn't think schools always fully disclose to parents what they teach kids.
"I'm not sure there was a full disclosure of what's really happening," Wright said.
But state law requires that parents receive the consent forms that outline what human sexuality topics will be discussed at least two weeks before instruction. Students without permission are given an alternative assignment away from the classroom.
Wright said no school district has asked him for the option of skipping sex education, but he said he wanted to give districts that choice.
Tribune reporter Lisa Schencker contributed to this report.
Sex education in Utah
Current policy • Under Utah law, parents have to sign a consent form for their secondary-age children to participate in lessons about human sexuality as part of health courses. To read more about the policy and see a consent form, go to http://1.usa.gov/xuuceF.
Proposed changes • HB363 would prohibit instruction about contraception and allow local school boards to eliminate human sexuality education in their districts. Sponsors: Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem. Status: Approved by House.