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Tina Armenta's car broke down the day she and her 13-year-old daughter planned to attend a sex education class at Planned Parenthood last week.
As if that would stop her. Armenta has already rescheduled.
"Parents need to open their eyes and stop being naive about what they think their child may or may not know," she said.
Armenta, a 28-year-old tire company employee living in West Valley City, wants her daughter to know all about human reproduction, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
The human sexuality portion of her daughter's health class at Scott M. Matheson Junior High School in Magna didn't cut it. "She said it didn't make sense to her - what was taught - but she wasn't ready to have 'the talk,' either," Armenta said.
In contrast, Michelle Skousen, whose 14-year-old daughter attends Fort Herriman Middle School, was aghast that her daughter's human sexuality teacher allegedly broached the topic of oral sex in response to a student's question, informing the class that the practice not only results in lost virginity, but can transmit sexual diseases.
"I said, 'I get where you're coming from, but not everyone is there,' " said Skousen of her phone conversation with the teacher.
Many parents at Fort Herriman Middle School, in fact, know exactly where they are: in favor of stringent restrictions on what teachers may talk about when they talk about human sexuality. It's clear, too, that some Utahns side with Armenta. What isn't in dispute is that when Jordan School District placed the health teacher on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, it became the first time in years that sex education in Utah was the subject of public discourse.
When contacted at her Sandy home, the health teacher refused comment.
The Utah State Office of Education contends situations like the one at Fort Herriman Middle School are rare. "In four years at this office, I'm aware of three instances [the latest included] in the last four years, out of 500 human sexuality educators in the state," said Frank Wojtech, director of health and physical education at the state office. "Something must be right out there, I'd say."
Fear, a lot of fear: Critics of state policy, such as Annabel Sheinberg, education director of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, note that while nothing definitive can be gleaned from events at Fort Herriman Middle School until all facts are in, the incident reveals potential pitfalls of a policy that can leave teachers guessing as to what's appropriate and what isn't.
"What we really have is a lot of fear. Fear leads to silence, which isn't what the state policy calls for," said Sheinberg, noting that a nationwide survey by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy showed 95 percent of adults believe teens should receive more information about both abstinence and contraception. "Teachers are really afraid, and you can see why."
On one hand, state law expects health teachers to inform students about contraception. On the other, health teachers are prohibited from advocating contraception.
That teachers are afraid of not being able to discern the difference might be an overstatement, but even health teachers who have no problem with the state's sex education policy see the potential for confusion in the classroom, where questions of who said what and why can get sticky.
"You always come to things from your perspective, and events get taken differently. A kid's perception of what happened can be very different," said Rayna Rogerson, a health teacher at Butler Middle School for 19 years.
Even Wojtech admits that teachers learning the curriculum have concerns. "The challenge is trying to erase the fears of teachers to deliver the curriculum. They are sometimes fearful that what they say or do will be misrepresented," Wojtech said.
'Just skip it': Utah is unique among Western states in that it maintains an "opt-in" policy requiring students to obtain parental permission before sex education begins; most states require parental permission before students "opt-out" of instruction. Utah is also unique in that, while mention of contraception is allowed, demonstration is not. Three "abstinence only" districts in Utah - Nebo, Provo and Jordan, which includes Fort Herriman Middle School - go as far as striking any mention of contraception from the curriculum unless students ask questions, to which teachers can give brief factual answers. But critics like Sheinberg say students need a thorough knowledge of human sexual activity to protect themselves. That need is all the more pressing, they say, given the slight rise in Utah's teen pregnancy rate for the first time in 10 years, and that almost 30 percent of the state's chlamydia cases belong to teenagers.
"Many teachers, given the reaction to this [policy], will say 'I'm not going to make that call. I'll just skip it,' " said Martha Kemper, vice president for communications at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). "Even if students are abstinent as young adults, at some point in their life they're going to need this information - even if they wait until marriage."
In many respects, though, Utah policy is strikingly similar to that of other states, virtually all of which either stress or include abstinence as part of the curriculum, according to SIECUS. In sex education circles, this policy is known as "abstinence-plus." Only California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., allow or include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered information in the classroom.
Opposing forces may butt heads next year during next year's legislative session. Planned Parenthood plans to lobby for a bill proposing "abstinence-based comprehensive sex education," which it says will make state policy more clear and consistent.
In the wake of allegations at Fort Herriman Middle School, meanwhile, Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said he will run a bill putting more teeth into state law and sex education policy, punishing teachers who cross the line into prohibited topics.
Wimmer is toying with a proposal that would place another adult in the classroom when human sexuality is taught to protect not only students, but also teachers from unsubstantiated allegations. Any criminal penalties he might insert into his bill for teachers who transgress state policy would be no harsher than misdemeanor charges. "It's not serious enough to send someone to jail, but it's a serious offense," Wimmer said.
One way Utah works to provide assurance that health teachers don't cross the line is by requiring districts to provide a minimum of follow-up instruction every three years. Vigilant districts require follow-up instruction for their health teachers every year, said Wojtech.
Park City High School health teacher Gail McBride, who's taught sex education to sophomores for 27 years, believes sex education gets a bad rap only by the uninformed.
"The only thing we don't do that some states do is demonstrations. We don't put condoms on bananas. But we can talk about condom package instructions," she said. "I have to admit, though, that the only place I've lived in Utah is Park City. It may be different than some areas, and I know that."
Careful what you say
What teachers can, and cannot, teach
as part of Utah's human sexuality curriculum:
* Stress the importance of abstinence from sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage.
* Provide factual, unbiased information about contraception and condoms with prior written parental consent.
* Discuss the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior.
* Advocate homosexuality.
* Advocate or encourage contraceptive methods or devices.
* Advocate sexual activity outside of marriage.
Source: Utah State Office of Education