King reflects on failure of sex education bill
When the 2016 session of the Utah Legislature was just getting underway, House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, identified a handful of issues he believed the governing body needed to address, including Medicaid expansion and the proper funding of public education. Among the bills he introduced personally, though, King’s HB 246 was the biggest, or at least, it grabbed the most headlines. Otherwise known as the comprehensive sex education bill, it would have allowed for the creation of a sex education program starting at the fourth grade, with age-appropriate curriculum, that parents would have to opt into.
It went back and forth between the House Rules Committee and Education Committee but never made it to the House overall for a vote.
But I will tell you, the more information I gathered about that bill in the process of presenting it, the more committed I became to it, because it’s just so evident that we need this information," he said. "At the very least, we need to provide parents with the option of being able to obtain that information for their kids. The studies that have been done on this show that there is a very high correlation between informing our kids of the details on this and having them be in a position to act for themselves and taking responsible measures to avoid things like STDs and pregnancy."
King said he looked at the issue very simply and asked other lawmakers to do the same.
"If you’re in favor of decreasing abortions in Utah, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t, a key component of that is to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies," he said. "And I thought that argument would be really persuasive. I said, if we’ve got kids who are going to engage in sexual activity, I don’t think we should be putting our heads in the sand on that."
That argument was not successful, and King said he thinks he knows at least part of the reason why. There were misconceptions about the bill, like that it would require participation or that parents had to opt out of the program, which King said he frequently had to correct.
"Neither of those things are true," he said. "The fact is, and this was a very conscious decision on my part, the bill set up a system where in order to take part the parent had to affirmatively opt into it. And I think that is absolutely critical. I don’t want to have this argument out there that says we are mandating it for everybody.
But King added that in his view there was a larger issue at play, and so it came as no shock to him when the bill died in committee.
"I was certainly disappointed but I wasn’t surprised," he said. "You know, when you talk about sex, people really have a strong emotional response. But there are a lot of times when our emotional response to things can lead us astray. And I think in this particular case that’s what is going on. I think we’ve got an emotional response that is not very helpful to how we handle this issue and address this problem."
Asking people to accept that their children might be sexually active, he said, was a difficult obstacle to overcome.
"Many people have an emotional response when you’re talking about sex and their kids that is just a sort of avoidance," he said. "They want to stick their head in the sand and say, ‘my kid doesn’t do that,’ or, ‘I don’t even want to talk about that with my kids. I’m just going to teach my kids the importance of being virtuous and chaste and waiting until they find the right one and get married to have sex.’
"And you know, look, there are a lot of kids who will do that. But there are also a lot of kids, even in Utah, who are not going to wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity. Let’s acknowledge that as the reality."
King said he found the support he received from health officials and educators affirming and it encouraged him to keep pushing.
"I talked to the communicable disease people up in Summit and at the Salt Lake and Davis county health departments," he said. "And each one of them said they were very concerned about increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases, especially among our youth. Officials said they are seeing increasing rates of STDs and it concerns them. And they said they thought it was largely based on ignorance."
King said the educators he spoke to told him they often felt frustrated at what they were not allowed to talk about with their students.
"They feel they need to provide this information, to high school kids in particular, but their hands are tied by statute," he said. "The teachers who contacted me said they are frustrated with the degree to which they felt like they couldn’t share relevant information to the kids, or even respond to kids’ questions that were directly asked of them."
Looking forward to the 2017 session, King said he plans to get a head-start with his comprehensive sex education proposal.
"What I think I’m going to need to do is really work this over the interim period," he said. "I’m going to be pushing that it be part of the interim committee’s agendas and that we take it up again and just work hard to get the facts out, especially with this opt-in provision."
The interim committee meets once a month from May through November (usually skipping August) and King said he hopes to build support for the sex education measure through them.
"The interim committee is comprised of senators and representatives," King said. "And we study and hear testimony about various bills or bill ideas that allow us to gather more information and move forward on some important issues. So I’m going to be working on that, and it’s going to be a way of getting together with people about the importance of this."
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