Utah’s sex education standards are updated for the first time in 20 years. But teachers will still “emphasize abstinence.”

Before finally approving new guidelines for what students in Utah should learn about sex, the state school board made some last-minute changes on Thursday to ensure the focus in classrooms remains on chastity.

Members approved an additional line urging teachers to “discuss the risks of indiscriminate sexual behavior to overall health.” They debated whether the updated standards were insufficient to encourage marriage before childbearing — what has been called “the success sequence.” And they changed the language so that lessons that used to just say “including abstinence” now say “emphasize abstinence” instead.

“We’re a family-friendly state, and we have to keep that in mind,” said Lisa Cummins, a member of the Utah Board of Education, who also said the standards should do more to get parents involved in the discussions.

Sex education has always been a focus in this conservative state, although health courses focus on more subjects. With Thursday’s vote, the teaching guidelines have now cleared the final hurdle and will next be examined and implemented in K-12 public schools throughout Utah.

It will be the state’s first major update of health education standards in more than 20 years.

It took more than two years to get to this finished design.

Utah state law currently allows for a “abstinence-based” sex education program that promotes celibacy as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or illness. Teachers are prohibited from promoting “premarital or extramarital sexual activity.” That hasn’t changed with the new standards, but they do include a bit more information on how to evaluate different birth control methods, including condoms and birth control pills.

During the nearly four-hour board discussion last week, Member Jennie Earl questioned whether the standard for speaking about these methods should say they “prevent” STDs or just “reduce” the risk of contracting them. “I just want it to be medically correct,” she said.

Earl, representing Northern Utah, tabled more than a dozen other recommended amendments, most of which focused on reaffirming parental rights. Most were defeated.

The standards tell students that when they need help or guidance for health conditions, but especially abuse, they should speak to a “trusted adult” that includes parents, clergy, coaches and more. Earl suggested that the text read “parent or trusted adult” to make it clear that the state puts parents first. The discussion showed the ideological breakdown of the board, with the more conservative members agreeing with Earl and the more liberal and moderate members opposing.

Board member Jennifer Graviet, whose Ogden District is a part of, responded, “When you’re looking for someone you can trust, it’s not about a title or a role.” The students, she added, come from a variety of family backgrounds, some of which are have a single parent, are being raised by grandparents, or have no responsible or dedicated caregiver at all; some experience abuse in their own homes. So the term “trusted adult,” Graviet said, applies universally.

However, Alisa Ellis, a board member representing Heber City, asserted that the language uses “family as an afterthought” and supported a change to add a paragraph at the beginning of the standards for each grade level so students include their parents in conversations about sex.

Graviet said this is “heading down a slippery slope” where math and English classes don’t have the same requirements for discussing the Pythagorean theorem or the morality of a novel with a child’s mother or father. Nevertheless, the addition is passed.

Whatever the board changes, Terry Shoemaker, who represents the Utah School Boards Association, urged the standards to be implemented and moved forward.

“We have to get this done,” he said. You talk through the nuances of some things in a way that I think you’re exaggerating. … You are expected to be cautious about these things and I appreciate that, but it has to be done because this has been on the table for quite some time.”

The board of education voted to review health standards in July 2017, and a writing committee has met more than 30 times to draft new ones. There were also six public hearings for parents and teachers. The board also garnered more than 1,000 comments.

The approved guidelines cover six areas of education, including mental and emotional health and nutrition. For the first time, the new standards include lessons from kindergarten to the second grade. Parents must continue to “enroll” their children in sex education sessions in middle and high school.

Some of the bigger changes include a discussion of pornography addiction and a new note stating that “recovery is possible.” The board also urges learning lessons about kindness before any discussion about bullying. And teachers will start with some basic anatomy lessons in elementary school to help kids who may need to report being touched inappropriately.

Three members, including Cummins, still voted against the standards, saying discussion of sex should take place at home, not in the classroom. “Many of these go beyond the school’s remit,” added board member Alisa Ellis.

But 12 members voted in favour, and the hall erupted in applause at the passage. Utah’s sex education standards are updated for the first time in 20 years. But teachers will still “emphasize abstinence.”

Joel McCord

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