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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers this week focused on bills that aim to help victims of sexual assault. Legislators also discussed bills that would change the rules for search warrants, prohibit Utahns under the age of 19 to enter smoke shops and several education bills.
Here are the highlights from these stories:
A bill clarifying the definition of sexual assault that was the subject of controversial comments by a lawmaker sailed through a Senate committee Tuesday.
HB74, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is intended to clarify the definition of "without consent of the victim" regarding sexual offenses. Romero said the current law is confusing and virtually impossible to prosecute.
The Senate Judiciary, Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement committee unanimously endorsed the measure.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the bill makes it clear that an unconscious person is assumed to not have consented to sex. The existing law requires proof that consent was not given.
"This only applies if you're in court on a rape charge," he said.
Weiler said he doesn't believe there's a bill that has drawn more media attention this session.
Earlier this month, Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, apologized after asking in a committee hearing on the bill whether having sex with an unconscious spouse would be rape. His comments were criticized around the country on social media.
A resolution that lawmakers hope will change how police, advocates and even family members interact with victims of sexual violence passed the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday.
HCR1, sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would designate the first Wednesday of April as “Start Believing Day” in support of sexual assault victims. The resolution passed the House by 69-3 vote.
"Because a friend or family member is typically the first person a victim confides in after an assault, each individual's personal reaction is the first step in a long path toward justice and healing," Romero said. "'Start By Believing' will lead the way toward stopping the cycle of sexual violence by creating a positive community response, informing the public, uniting allies and supporters, and improving our personal reactions."
Research from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice indicate that many sexual assault victims do not report their assaults for fear of not being believed, the resolution states.
HCR1 follows the message of the national Start By Believing campaign, which “confronts the reality that many victims do not get the support they need when they do report a crime,” according to the resolution.
Some police officers serving search warrants might have to wear body cameras under a revised bill that changes the rules for forcibly entering a house or building.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, made several changes to the original version of SB82 after meeting with law enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union and others.
"I think we're there, or we're very close to there," Urquhart told the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday.
The committee unanimously endorsed the measure. It now goes to the Senate floor.
The bill would raise the standard of evidence needed for a forcible entry to "reasonable suspicion" and require police to wear a badge, label or clothing that clearly identifies them as law enforcement officers when executing a search warrant.
Also, officers could not use a no-knock warrant in cases where drug possession or use is suspected. Police would have to suspect that drugs are being sold.
Instead of requiring officers to use body cameras, Urquhart said, the bill now provides for police officers to wear body-cams if their department owns the equipment. The bill allows police agencies to set their own policies for body cameras.
A bill to prohibit Utahns under the age of 19 from entering specialty smoke shops without a parent or legal guardian easily cleared the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday.
HB131, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, passed through the House 73-0.
The bill would also restrict parents or guardians from allowing anyone under 19 to accompany them in a tobacco shop to purchase cigarettes, tobacco or e-cigarettes.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Senate gives preliminary approval to partisan school board election bill
The Utah Senate gave preliminary approval Tuesday to a bill that would modify the election system for members of the Utah State Board of Education and many local school boards.
The current system, which uses a nominating committee to find candidates who are then chosen by the governor to be placed on the ballot, was ruled unconstitutional by U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups in September because it lacked clarity, accountability and transparency.
Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, said SB104 seeks to restore accountability and to make school board election results more in line with community values.
"This piece of legislation attempts to bring some more accountability back to the parents as the school board should be accountable to the parents," Jackson said. "Right now, I'm hard pressed to say that it is."
The bill would make State School Board elections and elections for local school districts with 20,000 students or more a partisan process. Supporters of the bill say it would give voters a better idea of who to elect rather than voting for the first name that appears on the ballot out of unfamiliarity.
But some say the approach would further politicize Utah's education system.
Laura Warburton understands the role students have on each other's safety.
In 2013, her daughter was injured in a car accident. As she recovered, severe emotional stress began to take its toll on her, even though she was receiving neuropsychiatric treatment and physical treatment.
Last year, the 16-year-old took her own life.
"We did everything we could," Warburton said. "At least we felt we did."
It wasn't the only time her daughter attempted suicide. The first time, a friend found out and contacted school leaders, who then contacted Warburton.
"That kept her alive for another six months," she said. "The kids help the kids."
Utah students may be able to use a smartphone application to anonymously report bullying and violence at their schools and get immediate help for students with thoughts of suicide.
Last year, the Legislature funded a pilot program that created a phone line that students could call to report such problems. SB175, which was unanimously approved by the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, would make it a permanent program and allocate $150,000 in ongoing funds to ensure that a licensed social worker be available to talk to students at any time.
"I think it's a vital piece to what our community needs," Warburton said.
Amid a heated debate over whether to eliminate Utah's current year-end testing system, parents and educators asked lawmakers Tuesday to support a resolution to study ways to reduce the number of tests students are required to take.
Many also expressed concerns that tests have deviated from their purpose of informing instruction to a high-stakes approach in evaluating schools and teachers, allocating funds, and grouping students.
Ann Florence, who used to teach eighth- and ninth-graders in the Granite School District, said students' apathy toward performance on exams is growing as the amount of time spent on testing increases.
"There is terrible test burnout," Florence said. "That little love of learning is so fragile at that age, and to keep it alive takes every bit of effort from a teacher. And when so much time is taken up with testing, I just see attitudes toward school plummeting."
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, is sponsoring HCR7, which would ask state education leaders to conduct a study of current testing protocols to see whether testing could be reduced, especially high-stakes tests.
The resolution says since implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, Utah has had to shift its focus from teaching to testing, putting pressure on teachers to spend more time preparing students to take tests and less time on holistic education.