Nearly every year, Utah lawmakers seek to change how educators approach sexual education in public schools. The newest proposed legislation on the topic, House Bill 177, would require the topics of “consent, including what does not constitute consent; sexual violence behavior prevention; and sexual assault resource strategies,” according to the bill’s text.
Lawmakers previously voted down the bill before a substitute version passed a committee in the house on Wednesday, though one vote determined the move.
“We support the concept of teaching these skills to (students),” said Jill Anderson, the executive director for Citizens Against Physical and Sexual Abuse. “It’s important for them to learn and understand these skills in life.”
Though CAPSA works closely with local school districts and is constantly educating students in high schools throughout the area about healthy relationships, Upstander training and other risk-mitigating skills, Anderson said this legislation would help because “Increasing skill-building and protective factors in youth is our best chance of reducing and ending domestic and sexual violence in our communities.”
Michael Scott, the shelter director at Brigham City’s domestic violence shelter the New Hope Crisis Center, agreed.
“There needs to be more education and public understanding of what domestic violence is,” she told The Herald Journal in January. “We’ve seen more violent cases this year. There needs to be more education, at a younger age, teaching people how to have healthy relationships and what healthy relationships look like, to help break up the abusive patterns we have in society.”
According to the Utah Department of Health, “Rape is the only violent crime in Utah that is higher than the national average,” and Anderson added Utah also has a higher rate of domestic violence.
“In Utah, 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, which is higher than the national average of 1 in 4,” she said. “And so it’s really important that we’re working to educate our youth as early as possible on what healthy relationships look like and how to reduce those risk factors that our youth are facing.”
Despite local advocates supporting the changes, local representatives Dan Johnson, of Logan, and Casey Snider, of Paradise, aren’t sold on the idea.
While the topic of consent — though worded as a “refusal skill” — is already taught in sexual education classes for grades eight and above, Snider expressed concern over having a state mandate on the issue in the virtual town hall with local legislators on Thursday.
“If there are sensitive issues, such as sex ed or others, I don’t think it’s the proper role of government to mandate those types of things,” he said when asked about HB 177 at the town hall. “I think there’s a balance in all of this, and I think we fundamentally have to protect that guidance and relationship between parents and children.”
Johnson, who serves on the House Education Committee, voted against the bill twice in committee, though a third substitution of the bill ultimately passed in a 6-5 vote (with four representatives abstaining or absent) on Wednesday.
He said when it comes to a vote on the floor, he’ll vote against it again.
“Two years ago, the Utah State Department of Education went through a very lengthy process of vetting the current health standards that are in the curriculum,” the former educator said at the meeting. “… We just got finished vetting these health standards, and we haven’t even had a chance to look at the implementation of those standards and gather data on them before we’re going to change it again.”
Under the current curriculum, the “refusal skills” taught include refusal of sexual advances and the obligation to respect that boundary but stop short of defining consent.
The new bill would add the clarifying language of consent being an agreement that is freely given, informed and knowledgeable as well as diving deeper into communication and respecting boundaries.
Several constituents on the Facebook livestream of the meeting supported Johnson’s feelings on the bill, though one individual claimed against evidence that “Sex ed passed in Oregon years ago and pregnancies and abortions have skyrocketed.”
According to an Aug. 27, 2018 Oregon Business article, the opposite has occurred since the state adopted a more comprehensive sexual education curriculum.
“Teen pregnancy rates dropped from 35 per 1,000 in 2007 to 17 per 1,000 in 2016, according to figures from Children First for Oregon” the article stated. “Most teens now use some form of birth control if they have sex, according to the annual Oregon Healthy Teens survey conducted by the Oregon Health Authority.”
Similar evidence has been seen in Britain as well as other states nationally.
“While theoretically fully protective, abstinence intentions often fail, as abstinence is not maintained,” according to a 2017 Journal of Adolescent Health report. Abstinence-only-until-marriage “programs are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other behaviors. Conversely, many comprehensive sexuality education programs successfully delay initiation of sexual intercourse and reduce sexual risk behaviors.”
Barb Farris, a former Cache County School District health educator, said while Utah’s curriculum is more “abstinence-plus” than “abstinence-only,” she doesn’t see how more information on a topic can be harmful — especially considering the evidence.
“I think knowledge is power,” she said. “The more information we can give our kids — within reason; obviously you cannot tell a kindergartner the same thing you’d tell a 12th grader — but having more information available will ultimately lead to better outcomes. Our kids will be healthier and happier.”
Additionally, both Farris and Johnson added that the new bill makes no changes to parents’ rights to “opt-out” of any component of curriculum they’re uncomfortable with.
“I just wish they would trust teachers, because teachers really do have the kids’ best interests at heart,” Farris said, adding she wishes legislators would otherwise “go into the classroom and find out what’s already going on.”
More information on having a CAPSA representative give a presentation at a local school or business is available at https://www.capsa.org/education/.