In Utah, talks about what's appropriate in sex ed likely to continue
Sex ed • Talk about what teens should be taught isn't over.
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As a member of the LDS Church, 19-year-old Ty Talbot believes in abstaining from sex before marriage. But the Bountiful High graduate is glad his health teacher was able to share basic information about contraceptives as part of a lesson that promoted abstinence.

"I feel like it's an important class to have because if the kids aren't aware of [the risks of unprotected sex], then they're going to go experiment," said Talbot, now a student at LDS Business College.

Daniella Herrera, who graduated from Hillcrest High last year, said she would not have gotten the information that was shared in her sex-ed class from her parents.

"My parents have the idea that school will teach you everything you need to know," said Herrera, an 18-year-old student at the University of Utah. "I definitely learned a lot of things from that class."

Both students said they were opposed to HB363, a bill that would have eliminated instruction about contraception in Utah sex-ed classes, and which Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed on Friday night. Herbert said the bill, which also would have allowed school districts to drop sex ed altogether, "deprives parents of their choice" in deciding whether to allow students to participate in sex ed. Parents must sign permission slips for teens to be in the classes.

If HB363 had become law, Utah would have become the first state in the nation to specifically ban instruction in contraceptives in public schools, according to Elizabeth Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, a national public policy center for sexual and reproductive health. Policies in a dozen other states — Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas — encourage abstinence-only curricula but their laws do not explicitly forbid school lessons about contraception, she said. And Utah is one of just three states that require parents to give consent for children to stay in class during sex education.

"Utah was already very conservative on sex education to start off with," Nash said. HB363 would have "put it among some of the most restrictive states."

While HB363 appears to be history, the discussion over what Utah students should be taught in sex ed likely isn't over. Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said Saturday that he and Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, still intend to explore the idea of creating an online lesson plan about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases that parents and teens could use at home.

"It will be geared toward parents, toward opening the conversation" about those topics with their children, he said, because lawmakers now wonder whether parents were not included to the degree they should have been in the debate over HB363. Representatives of the PTA and health educators also will be included in any discussions about a possible online curriculum, McCay said.

But no matter what or how they're being taught, many Utah teens are having sex, getting pregnant and contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex lives of Utah teens • In 2010, according to state data, 3,068 babies were delivered to teen mothers in Utah, accounting for 5.9 percent of all births. Of those deliveries, 876 were to girls 15 to 17 years old, and 27 were to girls younger than 15. The same year, 1,591 girls and 433 boys age 19 and younger in Utah were diagnosed with chlamydia, which can cause infertility. Females are screened more frequently than males, which explain the higher rate.

In 2009 (the most recent data available), 46 percent of teens nationally reported to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System that they had had sex. Utah is one of several states that does not ask teens about sexual activity. But neighboring Idaho, perhaps the best comparison, had the nation's lowest rate at 39 percent.

Some parents and educators would like to have more information about what Utah teens are doing.

In Summit County, the health department recently completed a community health needs assessment, which included asking parents and teens about sex education. Youths in focus groups reported that they would ask their friends or search online to answer questions about sex before they would ask their parents.

Richard Bullough, director of Summit County Health Department, said it was clear from the assessment that youths "don't think the information they receive in schools is as comprehensive or as accurate as it needs to be."

Current Utah law prohibits teachers from advocating contraception, which some say leads teachers to occasionally skip the topic altogether. Summit County is exploring ways to survey teens about their sexual-risk behaviors, with parental consent. It doesn't yet have permission from school districts there.

"We have anecdotal evidence — this sounds stupid — that kids have sex," Bullough said. "Yet ironically we don't have hard data other than STDs and pregnancies. Frankly, that seems silly to me."

He noted that the goal of public health is to prevent those outcomes. If HB363 had become law, he said, the health department would have sought to provide more comprehensive sex-ed classes outside of schools.

"It's irresponsible for us not to provide resources and information," he said.

Patricio Panuncio, a senior at Academy for Math, Engineering and Science charter high school in Murray, said he wrote to his state representative to express his opposition to HB363. He was among eight young adults interviewed for this story, none of whom supported the bill, and was happy to hear about Herbert's veto, calling it "something I wanted to happen."

"We have a right to know what we can do to prevent pregnancy and other problems," said Panuncio, 18. "By just ignoring it, you're not resolving anything. You're just adding to the ignorance."

He said he is open to the idea of an online lesson plan, but said schools should still have the option of teaching about contraception.

"The more options the better. However, I don't feel that should be the only resource for us," Panuncio said of McCay and Osmond's idea.

What the research shows • In 2009, a task force working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed studies of 83 comprehensive sex education programs. The task force found that such programs reduce adolescent risk factors such as engagement in any sexual activity, frequency of sexual activity, number of partners and frequency of unprotected sexual activity. The programs also increase the use of protection against pregnancy and STDs, and reduce the incidence of disease.

The success of such programs prompted the panel to recommend their use. In a similar review of 23 abstinence-only programs, the task force found "insufficient evidence" to recommend them as a strategy for preventing teen pregnancy and STDs.

"The research demonstrates that comprehensive programs are effective," said Robert Johnson, a member of the task force and dean of the New Jersey Medical School. "We're not saying [abstinence-only programs] are of no value. We're just saying, right now, we don't have enough evidence to make a comment."

David Buer, communications director of the Sutherland Institute, which supported HB363, countered that a 2010 review by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, found that 17 of 22 abstinence-program studies also measured significant positive results, such as delayed sexual initiation and reduced levels of early sexual activity.

"If public education is going to teach anything related to sexual education, then they should teach what we call the gold standard, which is abstinence only," Buer said. "To do otherwise sends a mixed message to kids: 'We want you to not have premarital sex, but if you do, here's how you do it.' "

In Utah, health departments are prohibited by a 1988 law from providing contraceptive services to unmarried minors without parental consent. That has prevented the state health department from administering federal Title X funds, which requires that family planning services be provided confidentially to low-income women regardless of age.

Instead, the health department passes on the money — $1.6 million — to Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

Last year, their clinics provided health care services (which could include birth control and emergency contraception along with other exams) to 6,147 teens ages 18 and younger and to 3,474 19-year-olds. Together, they make up 17 percent of the clinics' clients.

Karrie Galloway, CEO of the association, said she wishes more teens would use the services.

"We don't see that many teens, to be honest," she said. "We know there are teens getting pregnant unintentionally."

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