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Sex ed debate becomes lesson for future Utah leaders

Published September 11, 2012 8:04 am

Utah PTA leaders talk to U. students about evolution of sex-education legislation and veto.
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For months, it inspired anger, shock and debate. It was one of the few political issues that truly spread this year from the Capitol to the hearts and minds of nearly every Utahn.

And now, nearly six months after Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed a controversial sex-education bill, it has become a lesson for the political leaders of tomorrow.

About two dozen University of Utah students gathered Monday at the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics to hear leaders from the Utah Parent Teacher Association describe the evolution of HB363, a bill that would have scaled back sex education in the state. HB363, sponsored by Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, would have prohibited schools from discussing contraception and would have allowed school districts to drop sex education entirely if they so chose.

The Utah PTA, along with other groups, actively opposed the bill this past session, claiming it would hurt children to deny them potentially life-changing information and take away parental choice. Those who supported the bill, including the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, argued that districts should have a choice in whether to offer the class, and the best way to protect teens would be to promote abstinence-only.

On Monday, Liz Zentner, Utah PTA president-elect, and Dawn Davies, PTA legislative vice president, described what was going on behind the scenes politically as the bill moved through the Legislature.

Zentner said the PTA chooses to support or oppose bills based largely on its resolutions, voted on by members. The Utah PTA's resolution on sex education states that abstinence before marriage should be promoted, but that curriculum should also identify the limitations of contraceptives.

Davies also said it's not the Legislature's role to mandate curriculum. She said, in hopes of defeating the bill, the Utah PTA worked mainly in the House, feeling it had a better chance of persuading representatives there not to support HB363 than in the Senate, because the Senate is smaller and more conservative.

Ultimately, the PTA and others failed to get enough lawmakers to take their side, and the bill passed both chambers. At that point, Davies said, the PTA turned its efforts to the governor, who has veto power.

She said the PTA urged its members to email and call the governor. PTA leaders also directed them to an online petition, started by a retired Murray firefighter, against the bill. Initially the PTA feared Utahns wouldn't sign the petition because it was at SignOn.org, which is part of MoveOn.org Civic Action, a liberal-leaning nonprofit. But, in the end, tens of thousands signed the petition, and the governor's office received nearly 10,000 emails, phone calls and letters.

"That gave the governor the ability to know that he had the support of the people," Davies said of the petition, calls and emails, "and I think that's what's important for us, as members of society, to have our voices heard."

In March, Herbert said he vetoed the bill because HB363 "simply goes too far by constricting parental options."

Students who attended the event Monday said they learned much from the presentation — both about the issue and the political process.

"That's why we live in the greatest country in the world because we have a process where citizens can be represented," senior Anthony Paneck said. "The majority of citizens didn't like it, and they were able to make their voices heard."

Senior Kyle Perkins said he thought it was "extremely informative, and I wasn't aware previously of how influential the PTA is in the state of Utah."

Tim Chambless, a Hinckley Institute associate professor, said he intended the forum to give his students an actual political scenario to think about.

"Where possible, I want to give my students a real-life case study rather than a hypothetical," Chambless said. "I want my students to think critically with the hope that they'll then problem solve."

He said groups on the other side of the issue, such as the Utah Eagle Forum, may be invited to speak in the future.


Twitter: @lschencker






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