SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to place sex education resources online for parents narrowly squeezed through a Senate committee Monday after more than an hour of debate.
SB39 received a youthful boost in the form of several members of the Timpview High School debate team who attended Monday's meeting of the Senate Standing Education Committee to speak in favor of the bill. The students expressed a concern that too many of Utah's parents are ill-equipped to discuss human sexuality with their children, and expressed their support for a bill that would empower families to hold discussions of the sensitive issue in the home.
"Understanding that sex is a health issue, parents in the state have a compelling interest to keep their kids healthy and safe," Timpview student Orihah Frandsen said. "We need to understand this issue and parents are the best to teach us."
Rachel Sybrowsky, another Timpview student, said sex education is not the exclusive right of either parents or schools. She said by providing parents with the resources they need to discuss the issue with their children, the bill would increase the number of sex education teachers in the state.
The student was also dismissive of those who oppose the bill, calling the arguments against SB39 "erroneous." She said the bill is not, as some argue, a first step toward removing sex education from public schools but instead provides more opportunities for children to receive the information they need.
"Senate Bill 39 is designed to offer more opportunities in discussing sex education, not less," Sybrowsky said. "There's really no reason to vote against this bill."
While the bill's sponsor, Senator Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, has maintained that the bill would not require changes to the existing sex education curriculum, many who spoke in favor of the bill expressed that the topic belongs primarily in the home and not in the classroom.
Ruth Robertson, a ninth-grade Davis School District student, said sex education is best handled within the safety of a student's home. She also referenced a recent decision by Davis School District officials to return the book "In Our Mothers' House" to school library shelves as evidence that she can no longer trust district leadership to protect her values in regards to sensitive issues like sexual relationships and morality.
"People like me are under attack, especially where sexuality is concerned," Robertson said.
The book, a children's picture book that depicts a family with same-sex parents, was removed from school library shelves after 25 parents objected to its normalization of a homosexual couple. The decision was reversed following a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and further district review.
Reid said his motivation for sponsoring SB39 stemmed from the discussion that surrounded a sex education bill that passed the Legislature during last year's session but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Gary Herbert. During the debate of that bill, Reid said he became concerned that the conversation was centered around the content of the state's sex education curriculum, rather than a conversation about parental responsibility.
Understanding that sex is a health issue, parents in the state have a compelling interest to keep their kids healthy and safe. We need to understand this issue and parents are the best to teach us.
–Orihah Frandsen, Timpview student
His bill would require the state office of education to make existing sex education resources available online to inform and empower parents to have supplemental conversations with their children about the topic at home.
"I thought it would be a good tool for parents to be able to sit down with their children and have a conversation," he said. "Too often we abdicate that responsibility to our educators."
The State Board of Education has taken a position of opposition against the bill. At Monday's committee meeting, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove relayed some of the board's concerns, which include an unease about whether Utah's public schools should carry the responsibility of educating parents. He also said the online resource created by the bill could potentially lead to scenarios where younger students gain access to age-inappropriate information.
The bill would also create a degree of conflict with local school boards and community councils, Martell said, which are currently empowered to tailor sex education instruction to meet the needs of local residents.
"I respect that right for local school boards to make those curriculum decisions," he said. "It now eliminates the possibility for that type of local input and local control."
Menlove was also concerned about funding for the terms of the bill. There is currently no fiscal note assigned to SB39 and in addition to the creation of an online resource, the bill calls for notices to be mailed home two times each year to make parents aware that the information is accessible online.
"I would remind you that a mailed notice to 600,000 students in the state of Utah does have a price to it," Menlove said. "Someone is going to be paying a half a million dollars."
Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, also spoke in opposition to the bill. He said educational material is already readily available online from private and non-profit organizations for those parents who desire it and added that the bill falls outside the role of government.
"I do not agree that there is a constitutional mandate to educate parents," he said. "There will be costs, there will be increased invasiveness into the home."
After repeated testimony in support of the bill, the meeting's tone shifted suddenly and SB39 appeared poised to fail after three of the six senators present expressed a desire to hold the bill until some of its kinks had been worked out. Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, said she shared Menlove's concern that a single, open website presented access issues and also added that the bill placed an effectively impossible burden on the state office of education to create a resource that would please all parties.
"I just feel like we're putting our good education people in a very awkward position because no matter what they come up with for the curriculum, it just seems that someone will not feel comfortable with what it is," she said.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also remarked on the high number of educational resources already available online and asked if the bill shouldn't be given more time to assess what is needed.
"When I see the quality of the kinds of resources there are out there now, I wonder if we shouldn't hold the bill and see if we can fine-tune it more," he said.
Reid said he was "bewildered" by the discussion of his bill. He said it was intentionally written as a modest initial approach to ease the burden on the Utah State Office of Education.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, joked that bewilderment typically accompanies discussion of sex education. He said the bill calls for nothing more than for the content currently being taught in schools to be provided online, where it would help parents make more informed decisions about allowing their children to participate in sex education courses.
"The sands shift rapidly when we deal with this issue," he said. "It's tied to what we're teaching in our schools and it shocks me that someone wouldn't want to have a tool that parents can have so that parents perfectly understand what their children are being taught."
The bill ultimately cleared the committee with a 4-2 vote. It will now go before the full Senate for debate and consideration.