SALT LAKE CITY — Child sex abuse survivor Deondra Brown, testifying to a legislative committee Wednesday urging their support of HB177, which would add the teaching of consent to Utah’s sex education standards, revealed she is also a rape survivor.
“I am also a rape survivor from my years at the Juilliard School in New York City. I’ve never spoken about it publicly and I almost never even talk about it privately,” Brown told the House Education Committee.
“I don’t share this simply today for the shock factor or for your sympathy. Although I must say over the years, your sympathy has proven quite moving and I share this with you today because I believe the issues we are discussing would have impacted my experiences as both a child abuse survivor and as an adult sexual assault survivor,” said Brown, part of The 5 Browns, a classical piano ensemble comprised of her, her two brothers and two sisters.
The Brown sisters were molested by their father as children. In 2010, the siblings sought criminal charges against their father, who had also been their professional manager.
In March 2011, Keith Brown was sentenced to 10 years to life for sodomy on a child and one to 15 years each of two counts of sex abuse of a child. The sodomy and abuse incidents occurred when each of the girls was 13 or younger.
Brown spoke in support of the latest version of HB177, sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay.
The third substitute of the bill would require consent to be part of the state’s sex education instruction and that students would be taught about consent in the seventh grade and again in the 11th grade. Under Utah law, parents must opt in for their children to participate in sex education instruction offered in public schools.
According to the bill, “consent means agreement to take an action or for an action to occur that is freely-given; informed; knowledgeable; and given by a person who is not legally prevented from consenting because of the person’s age or lack of capacity.”
The bill also calls for instruction in sexual violence behavior prevention and sexual assault resource strategies.
Prior to the committee vote after 90 minutes of emotional debate and testimony, Moss told committee members, “I want to make it very clear that I have no other motives in this bill other than to protect children. No other motives, no organizations that have guided me. This has purely been from a personal standpoint and my understanding of teens and what I think they need to better protect themselves.”
The bill was narrowly supported by the committee on a vote of 6-5, sending it to the House for further consideration.
HB177 will enable well-trained, skilled and caring teachers to open the door for conversations with parents to share their values, said Moss, who has adult children and is a retired schoolteacher.
“If they don’t want them to have that information, you’ve heard over and over again, they do not have to do that. I want one thing only from this bill and that’s for young people to have the communication skills to say yes and no,” she said.
Brown said learning about consent would have been “an important life lesson that would have served me well and saved me much pain later. Even though I’m a grown, successful woman, the guilt and the shame still occasionally find their way back into my mind. As with the child abuse I suffered as a child, the sexual assault scars are also very real and are now a part of me, too.”
But others urged the committee not to support bill. Jennie Earl, who is member of the Utah State Board of Education but said she was not speaking on behalf of the board because it has not yet taken a position on the bill, spoke in opposition to the bill noting the school board had adopted new health standards in 2019.
“I would encourage you not to make these changes at this time. Most districts are now just implementing the standards that we put in place, and we still don’t have time to know the outcome of those,” she said.
But BYU student Jenna Lawlor urged the committee to support HB177.
“I am a survivor of sexual assault. I am a survivor of child sexual abuse and I was groomed, and the language of grooming is important for children to understand. If I had known that language, it would have helped me. If I would have known consent language, it would have helped me,” Lawlor said.
Merrilee Boyack, president of the group Empowered Families Coalition, said she was grateful for improvements to the bill but she could still not support it. The committee heard an earlier version of the bill last week but voted to hold it in committee to allow Moss to do more work on the legislation.
Boyack questioned the origin of some of the bill’s language.
“The language used in sub three (the third substitute of the bill) mirrors the language, promoted by Planned Parenthood, and comprehensive sexuality education,” she said.
Jill Thackeray, a high school teacher and Moss’ daughter, said she believes she would not have experienced sexual abuse and rape “if I had known what consent was.”
Moss said Thackeray had confided to her that she had been sexually abused and assaulted but she was unaware her daughter would share those experiences with the committee.
Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, said he was moved by the survivors’ testimony and urged the committee’s support of the bill.
“This is not inviting Planned Parenthood, or the Pride Center or anybody else into our schools to teach our children. That is a red herring,” Waldrip said.
“This is about allowing kids to get information that I wish that they didn’t need at the age of 12. I so wish that our kids did not need this information. The average age of pornography exposure is going down, not up; our kids are seeing this on average before they’re 9 years old. That’s ridiculous. But it’s the reality,” he said.
Kids need tools they do not get from well-intentioned parents, ecclesiastical leaders and other people who care about them, he said.
Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, said she believes the 2019 health standards approved by the State School Board “give them everything they need to do the things we’ve been talking about today. And so, that’s where my vote will be.”
But Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, said HB177 “is about empowering our kids to identify and reject the grooming and the manipulation from people that they trust. That is not being taught currently and I think that is the importance of this bill.”
Ninety-three percent of abusers or perpetrators are known to the victim “and a good majority are family members. One in 4 girls and as high as 1 in 6 boys under the age of 18 will experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult,” Kwan said.