Moab Regional Hospital hosted its second annual Youth Sex Education program for middle and high school students on Friday, Nov. 2 in collaboration with Planned Parenthood Association of Utah. The program was funded by a WabiSabi “Make a Difference” grant, requested by MRH with the support of Grand County parents who feel that the public school curriculum, which is mandated by the Utah Legislature to deliver an abstinence-based education with limits to the information schools can provide on topics like contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and homosexuality, was inefficient in providing students with a successful path to sexual and overall health.
Admission was free, and attendance was optional.
“I didn’t feel the health education was quite up to speed in teaching students how to stay healthy and safe, said Castle Valley parent Shannon O’Donoghue. I wrote an impassioned letter of support and eight parents signed it. Other parents wrote their own letters, as well.”
O’Donoghue said, “It’s not that we don’t want our kids to practice abstinence, we just want them to be educated. The research shows that teaching abstinence-only isn’t much benefit.”
Planned Parenthood provides education programs to nearly 50 states. Much of the curriculum comes from a program their instructors are educated in called Get Real.
According to Get Real, a recent study demonstrated that, among students who received Get Real instruction, 16 percent fewer boys and 15 percent fewer girls had sex compared to their peers who did not participate in the program. Additionally, boys who completed the Get Real take-home activities in 6th grade were more likely to delay sex in the 8th grade than boys who did not complete these activities.
O’Donoghue added, “the more kids that are educated, the better it is for your kid, and for society. Even if we educated just a few kids, those few can act as resources for a friend at risk. You want educated youth for society.”
A primary objective of the program is to reach students early enough, before students reach the age when they may use risky behaviors. Three different classes taught by Planned Parenthood at the hospital were tailored to suit the three age divisions, which included sixth grade students, combined seventh and eighth grade students, and high schoolers. When explaining why it was important to include a special class pertaining to sex education for sixth grade students–a young age bracket one might not typically associate with needing sex education–Planned Parenthood’s Community Health Educator Cecilia Hackerson, who traveled to Moab from Salt Lake City to teach the course said, “that’s the age when they are really starting to become more aware of their surroundings and the people in it. It’s the perfect time to help them develop a sense of self.”
The exercises and conversations Hackerson facilitated through a 90-minute session for sixth graders focused on helping the students understand and identify the different kinds of relationships in their life, from close connections to mere acquaintances, as well as the core values they desire in those relationships. Students developed an understanding of what healthy relationships were, and identified for themselves that healthy relationships equated to feelings of calmness, comfort, safety and positivity.
Hackerson also helped them to identify solutions to situations that might challenge those healthy feelings. The program for sixth graders was less about “sex” education and more about “self” understanding. By encouraging them to trust their own values, the coursework aimed to help set the foundation for the social and physical complexities and challenges that might lie ahead for them.
The unconventional classroom setting at MRH was filled with pizza, lemonade, and a teacher who told her students they didn’t have to raise their hand for anything. It facilitated a less intimidating environment for the students.
Eve Maher-Young, a certified physician’s assistant specializing in family medicine and women’s health at MRH, has been the primary facilitator of Planned Parenthood’s educational involvement at the hospital, as well as the additional clinical services the agency provides within MRH’s clinic. “Planned Parenthood has been providing for our community for over 30 years, and provides the only available sliding-scale contraception in the area,” she said. “It’s challenging for schools to provide the education desired because of Utah laws. The easiest part is contraception, the hardest part is instilling the values.”
Planned Parenthood Association of Utah recommends parents who are interested in providing more expansive sexual health education for their children or need guidelines for how and when to talk to their kids about various topics at the appropriate age visit:
State law advocates abstinence
The Utah Board of Education Nov. 1 released new draft sex education guidelines for public schools, basically advocating for abstinence. The policies, which haven’t been revised for 20 years, are currently up for public review.
Utah state code currently requires educators to teach abstinence as the most effective way to prevent pregnancy or disease, while including limited discussions on contraception and reproduction. It also prohibits encouraging premarital or extramarital sexual activity.
The state school board in a narrow vote unveiled the standards for a three-month public review period. There was a tense debate, according to a recent story in the Salt Lake Tribune, as board members disagreed over whether the new guidelines go too far in talking about sex or say too little about abstinence.
“I have grave concerns that comprehensive sexuality is creeping into this,” said board member Lisa Cummins, who represents areas of Salt Lake County. She was among five members who voted not to release the standards. She had proposed sending them back to a committee for further rewriting and review, saying they were incomplete and didn’t define enough terms, leaving teachers free to interpret what they can talk about.
“What I’m seeing is red flags all over this,” Cummins added. “Our state is a family-based state, and we need to uphold that.”
Despite concerns from Cummins and others about what the new standards might allow, the guidelines cannot change the requirement for an overall message that promotes chastity. That would break the law, The Tribune story said.
“Abstinence is always our first lesson. It’s what we would like the students to all know and understand,” said Jodi Kaufman, the board’s health and physical education specialist. “We’re not advocating for the use of contraceptive devices.”
The board of education voted to review the health standards in July 2017. They cover six sections of education, including mental and emotional health and nutrition. One of the biggest changes to the sex education section came from the Utah Legislature, which voted this spring to have updated lessons include discussion of consent, “refusal skills” to help students decline sexual advances and the dangers of pornography.
The writing committee that drafted the standards also included lessons on internet relationships — which weren’t in the 1997 version and weren’t added during 2009 updates for middle and high schools — and information for abuse victims. And there will be a new health section on “protective factors of healthy self” that focuses on teaching decision-making and kindness, as well as an overall discussion of opioid addiction.
For the first time, the new standards will include lessons for kindergarten through second grade. And they will cut out redundancies so that each year builds on what was taught before, instead of repeating modules on human anatomy or communicable diseases. Middle and high school lessons will remain largely the same. Parents will still be required to “opt in” their kids for all health classes, including sex education.
“If a parent does not want their student to ever learn about contraceptives, they could opt their student out,” Kaufman said in the Tribune story. “They could even opt their student out of the entire unit.”
Several board of education members expressed concern about the new standards not clearly defining “abstinence” and “trusted adult,” who students are told to report to if they experience bullying or abuse. Member Alisa Ellis, representing Heber City, argued “this draft is not quite ready for prime time.”
She said the writing committee, made up of 30 members from various health organizations across the state, completely changed the most current version from what it looked like a month ago. Kaufman defended the group’s work, saying members met more than 30 times from March to September to get the draft right.
Carol Barlow Lear, who represents Salt Lake City, said during the debate, “Our schools ‘esperately need updated health standards.”
Nine members of the board voted to release the draft guidelines to move the process forward. With that decision, there will be five public hearings spread between November and December where residents can talk about changes they’d like to see.
“This is a draft,” Kaufman said. “It’s going to change.”