SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox took questions from students around Utah on Tuesday, addressing topics ranging from gun violence, LGBTQ suicide rates and advice on how Utah's youth can be better leaders today and for tomorrow.
"I think as adults, we undervalue or underappreciate the capacity of our young people, and especially the capacity to do good," Cox said during the first teen town hall of his administration, held virtually.
Cox said he believes in helping young leaders learn and grow, and especially in providing platforms for them to share their voices, such as the student town hall meetings. He took one question each from eight students from cities reaching from Ogden to southern Utah.
Utah students ask about the pandemic
Some students wanted to talk to Cox about the current COVID-19 pandemic, and what life will be like after it's over.
Emma Sosa, an eighth grader from West Jordan Middle School, asked Cox whether he would bring back health mandates with the onset of the flu season.
"I certainly hope not," said Cox. "I suspect that there are some people who may be at higher risk who will wear masks, but I don't anticipate we will have masks anymore for students in school as a requirement moving forward."
Even after the pandemic, he said, those who are sick will be encouraged to stay home, and he hopes the new virtual resources schools offer will help students not fall behind.
A senior at Ogden High School, Jackson Trotter, wanted to know how best to help elementary students impacted by the pandemic to catch up in their schooling.
"We are lucky, very fortunate, as we are one of the very few states in the country that has been open in almost all of our school districts for this entire school year, that's allowed us to not fall as far behind as kids in many other states. But you're right that there are kids impacted, especially in elementary school," said Cox.
Cox said the Utah Legislature and federal funds will help allocate resources to students in need. The state is focusing on those kids who are at most risk, he said, because while some children did fine through the pandemic, others might need additional one-on-one attention, maybe through tutoring, after-school help or even summer programs.
Education matters to Utah's youth
Aarushi Verma, a senior at Ogden High School, expressed concern about sex education curriculum in the state, noting it emphasizes abstinence but doesn't address other contraceptive methods or devices.
"This leaves students uninformed," Verma said. "Do you have any plans to enact change in Utah sex education curriculum, and if so what exactly will you implement?"
Cox explained that decision isn't up to Utah's governor.
"Those decisions are left to local school boards and we encourage you, wherever you are, to reach out to your local school boards and make sure that the right sex education that is being taught there is the type of education that is best for you and for other students," Cox told Verma.
Cox encouraged local school districts to offer more education, and though he said the best place for such education is at home, he acknowledged not every Utah household is doing so.
Austin Poitras, an eighth grader from West Jordan Middle School, wanted to know what Cox and the state are doing to prevent gun violence in schools.
"We know that in almost every case of school violence that we've seen there have been serious mental health issues that have gone unchallenged or that have been unfixed," Cox said.
Cox pointed to the SafeUT app, which offers free services for those in need of a crisis counselor and allows tips to be submitted anonymously.
"We've actually had some instances where kids did report a potential threat of violence, and we were able to intervene and stop that from happening," he said.
Even before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, Utah was researching and investing in safety measures such as security entry cameras and single points of access for schools to prevent those who would do harm from coming in.
Gaby Merida, a senior at Tuacahn High School, referenced the 2019 SHARP Survey done by the Utah Department of Human Services on the mental health of LGBTQ students, asking what the state's plans are to fund mental health resources and counselors in each school to help the safety of students, especially those self-identified as LGBTQ.
"One of the things we've learned through this pandemic is that we can deliver mental health services without having to be in person," Cox replied.
"Now, in person is great and it's better when it can be accomplished, but with telehealth now, with these very tools that we're using right now to talk to each other, we can actually have more counselors meeting with more students wherever they are."
Several new bills he signed into law this year that will increase access to mental health professionals, including through insurance or telehealth options, Cox said.
He also pointed to the three-digit phone number rolling out in the coming months, 988, that Utahns will be able to call in case of mental health crisis, like the current 911 number people call now for physical emergencies.
Cox addresses teens' concerns for Utah and their futures
From there, the conversation moved to issues such as the water availability and conservation of sacred Native American sites.
Caroline Waldmann, a senior at Park City High School, asked, "Many popular projects to increase Utahns' access to water, including the (Colorado River and) Lake Powell Pipeline, cut through sacred and culturally significant lands. What legislation do you support that will respect these lands while providing Utah with the water we need?"
Cox replied the two issues are not completely separate — native tribes need water as well.
"It's not choosing one or the other," Cox said. "It's choosing both, but doing it together in a way that will protect and preserve these lands and make sure that the sacred nature of them is there for our children and grandchildren, and for their children and grandchildren as well."
Following a visit by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Cox said he, Haaland, Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. John Curtis are hoping to work together to safeguard the specific sacred sites the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo leaders shared with them.
Paige Ballard, a junior at Springville High School, asked what student leaders, such as herself, could do for their schools.
"There are so many other opportunities, but I would say most importantly is to look around you. There are people that are struggling that we don't know about, but if you open your eyes and just pay attention, you'll find that they might be sitting next to you in class," said Cox.
He encouraged the student leaders to serve in their communities through the food bank programs, to reach out to friends and acquaintances through meaningful interactions in-person or on social media, and to find ways to volunteer.
Dallin Braun, a junior at Emery High School, asked, "Why is it that the middle-class people feel like their rights are being infringed upon by extremists? And what are you going to do to make it so the middle class has a say?"
Cox noted the importance of people getting involved and running for office.
"It's true that very often our political system rewards the loudest voices, and sometimes the most extreme and the fringes out there. That's something that is deeply concerning," Cox said.
Despite the toxicity and fighting and attacks on social media, Cox said Utah's youth shouldn't let those extreme voices drown them out.
"You didn't take it easy on me. You asked the hard questions," Cox told all the students.