Utah sex education bill fails; $100 million school safety assessment moves forward

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An elementary school student in Provo considers his homework. The Utah House Education Committee voted on two crucial bills last week that could dramatically impact both sex education and school safety resources for Utah students. (Universe Photo)

Many Utahns, including Gov. Gary R. Herbert, say they believe Utah’s current $158 million budget surplus should go toward education in Utah’s public schools.

“This one-time surplus revenue will help our Legislature lend short-term support to our education system for one-time expenses such as buildings,” Herbert wrote in a press release announcing the budget surplus in October 2018. “But we still need a long-term solution to fund excellence in our classrooms.”

During the past week, two education bills that would change Utah sex education and safety resources were presented in the House Education Committee, one failing and one moving forward with serious implications for the Utah budget. 

Sex education amendments fail

Utah schools’ sex education policies have been under fire for years. Some critics argue Utah’s abstinence-based curriculum does students more harm than good and fail to educate youth about contraceptive methods that are important later in life. Some supporters of the current law believe more detailed sex education could promote promiscuity among minors.

Rep. Raymond Ward, R-Bountiful, sponsored HB71 Health Education Amendments, which would have allowed health education teachers to teach information about contraceptive methods and devices without advocating their use. However, the bill failed to pass the House Education Committee 6-6 on Feb. 6.

Ward sponsored the bill to address Utah health teacher concerns who feel unable to teach about or answer student questions about contraceptive methods because of Utah code that prohibits advocacy or encouragement of contraceptive methods in Utah schools. 

“I am in agreement with the spirit of that line, it is not a teacher’s place to encourage use of contraceptive methods,” Ward said during the House Education Committee meeting Feb. 6. “We have this discrepancy where advocacy is prohibited and yet we have what I would consider to be good curriculum, leaving our teachers in what may be considered a bit of a bind.”

HB171 would have provided clarification and guidelines of what promotes advocacy of contraceptive methods, allowing teachers to address contraceptives as part of their curriculum without fear of losing their job.

Ward referenced numerous statements from Utah teachers calling for changes to Utah’s contraceptive advocacy guidelines in public schools.

“I would rather have a student get correct information from me than a friend or the internet,” one teacher said during the committee hearing.

“How do you teach something so important without risking your career and livelihood to what others may interpret you as saying? It is a fine line to walk in giving students accurate information without being perceived by anyone as advocating contraceptives,” another teacher said during the committee hearing.

HB171 would have still prohibited advocacy or encouragement of contraceptive methods or devices while allowing teachers to instruct students on the “medical characteristics, effectiveness, and limitations of contraceptive methods or devices.”

“We are so nervous about giving this kind of instruction that we are going to increase of influence promiscuity by giving this information, but I think the viewpoint of these health teachers show this is just a life skill of how to responsibly plan a family,” said Rep. Marie H. Poulson, D-Salt Lake City.

While numerous educators and legislators attended and spoke in favor of the bill, HB171 failed to pass committee 6-6.

$100 million student and school safety assessment passes committee

Also sponsored by Ward, HB120 would make changes to current safety procedures in Utah schools, responding to Utahns’ desires to protect students from dangers ranging from school shootings to suicide.

HB120 would seek to prevent violence and suicide among Utah students by creating liaisons between state government and schools as well as increased funding for counselors, structural changes, and software to report and track potential safety risks. (AP Photo/The Greenwich Time, Bob Luckey)

HB120 passed the House Education Committee Feb. 7 and moved forward to the House for a hearing. The bill would integrate state departments with school districts and implement the hiring of public safety liaisons between local law enforcement and schools as well as a liaison between the Utah Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and schools.

The bill would address two types of violence within schools — violence by one individual against others would be handled by law enforcement. Students at risk of committing violence against themselves would receive mental health support and counseling.

Utah’s suicide rates are consistently above the national average, with suicide leading as the most common cause of minors’ deaths in Utah. The Utah Department of Health observed a 141.3 percent increase in suicides among Utah minors from 2011 to 2015 compared to the national increase of 23.5 percent.

“The biggest threat to our students safety right now comes when a student is in a very difficult place with respect to their mental health,” Ward said. “The thing that catches the headlines the most is if there’s a mass shooting and violence against others and rightly so, but when we look at the numbers when we lose students, suicide is a much greater threat. We see we lose 40 to 45 students each year to suicide.”

A key component of HB120 would set aside money to develop a software tool for schools to report bullying, mental health concerns and other threats to the state office to better protect students. It would also commission programs to create threat assessments and teams of individuals to work with students or individuals who may pose harm to other students or school employees.

Ward described the $100 million financial provision to create software to track and report school safety as the “nerve-center” that would provide a solid foundation for schools to prevent harm to students.

HB120 would request appropriations of $30 million ongoing for safety personnel such as counselors and nurses as well as a one-time $67 million to purchase items for school safety such as upgrade to school entries, doors, and security software. Specific spending would be left to the discretion of the local education agencies according to their areas’ needs.

HB120 passed the House Education Committee 10-3 and moves forward for hearing on the House floor.

Visit le.utah.gov to learn more about bills scheduled for hearing during the upcoming 2019 legislative session.

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