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A group of Herriman parents is upset that a health teacher in a public middle school answered students' questions about homosexual sex, oral sex and masturbation. They say those topics are forbidden under state law, and they have persuaded Rep. Carl Wimmer to begin work on a bill that would provide criminal penalties for teachers who violate that law by saying too much.

Punitive legislation is exactly what sex education in Utah public schools does not need. This state's sex education curriculum already is so narrow that it discourages or forbids the comprehensive teaching that children need to make informed decisions and protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and disease.

Adding criminal penalties to the mix would only further intimidate teachers and prevent them from fully answering students' questions. That would leave students without a ready source of sound information, since many are too afraid or shy to ask their parents, who may not be fully or properly informed themselves.

Sex is one of the few topics in the curriculum in which ignorance is considered good policy. But it shouldn't be.

We do not know what the teacher is alleged to have said, so we cannot judge whether her statements were within the law or the bounds of good judgment. She has been placed on paid administrative leave during an investigation.

What we do know is that it would be ridiculous to try to teach students about HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent their spread without also discussing sexual practices. Apparently, the public is not fully informed, because health departments report that the rates of some sexually transmitted infections are growing alarmingly, particularly among young people.

We also know that middle schoolers are curious about masturbation. It makes sense to give them medically sound information rather than have them fall prey to anxiety from misinformation or popular myths.

State law prohibits promoting or encouraging sexual behavior, but it also requires teaching about the threat of diseases and how to prevent them. That's a distinction that may escape some students no matter how careful a teacher tries to be.

If the state is going to ask teachers to take on this delicate subject, it is not reasonable to place them under the sword of criminal prosecution.