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Sex education, abuse prevention bills both stall

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SALT LAKE CITY — After a four-hour hearing in a packed committee room Monday evening, Utah lawmakers voted down bills about sex abuse prevention education and sex education.

Sexual abuse survivors, parents, teachers, doctors and dozens of others members of the public packed into the hearing room at the state Capitol to speak to both bills, with a number of commenters speaking in favor of one and opposed to another.

One proposal before the House Education Committee would allow parents to enroll their children in a more comprehensive sex education than Utah's current abstinence-based instruction, which is an opt-in program.

House Bill 215, from Democratic Rep. Brian King of Salt Lake City, would have allowed parents to sign their kids up for more detailed information about contraception, including emergency contraception, sexual consent, and how drugs and alcohol can impair decisions making, among other areas.

King said parents could also get the information if they wanted to teach it themselves, but this offered them an option if they didn't have time, were too embarrassed or didn't know how to approach it.

"A lot of parents aren't going to do it, for one reason or another," King said.

Current Utah law requires teachers to focus on abstinence, but districts are allowed to offer instruction about contraception and preventing STDs. Four school districts — Canyons, Jordan, Nebo and Provo — are abstinence only, while all others are abstinence-based. All sex education programs first require a parent to consent for their child to receive the instruction.

King said the changes were needed to help combat rising sexually transmitted disease rates, sex abuse and misinformation about consent and curiosity among young people who may turn to pornography or other places to find information.

During two hours of testimony, the Utah Medical Association spoke in favor of his bill. Several doctors, sexual abuse survivors, parents and students said the instruction was needed. Opponents said they worried the education would teach children to have sex and that it was acceptable to have multiple sexual partners, among other concerns.

Lawmakers on the committee voted 2-12 against the bill, with the only two Democrats on the panel voting in support. Several Republican legislators said they weren't ready for such a change but may be in the future.

The same panel also opted not to advance a Republican bill that would have changed public schools' sex abuse prevention education so that parents would have to give permission before their child gets the training. The program was just adopted as part of curriculum this school year, but parents can pull their kids out if they don't want them to participate.

Backers said House Bill 137, from Republican Rep. Keven Stratton of Orem, would have let parents be more involved in that instruction.

Legislators said they worried that changing it so a parent would have to take action in order for a child to learn about inappropriate adult behavior or potential abuse might not help children who are sexually abused by a parent and don't recognize that the behavior is wrong or know how to get help.

Stratton suggested those students might be able to talk about it with other children, saying that "at some point that child is most likely going to divulge and discuss the problem with their peers," adding, "you're creating an educated support group for those that are at risk.

Several lawmakers of both parties said they worried the change would leave no safety net for those children, and the committee decided not take any action on the bill.