Arecent incident in the Jordan School District shows that the state's laws on sex education are too narrow and ought to be changed -- but not in the way one lawmaker proposes. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, would make answering students' questions a criminal offense.
This all came up because a health teacher at Fort Herriman Middle School reportedly answered questions about topics such as homosexuality, oral sex and masturbation. The teacher has been suspended and the district is investigating.
Until that inquiry is finished and made public, it's difficult to know precisely what happened. But the controversy has focused attention on state law, which establishes standards on sex instruction, including a part requiring teachers to stress "the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as methods for preventing certain communicable diseases; and personal skills that encourage individual choice of abstinence and fidelity."
Now comes the difficult part: "At no time may instruction be provided, including responses to spontaneous questions raised by students, regarding any means or methods that facilitate or encourage the violation of any state or federal criminal law by a minor or an adult." The reference covers instruction in such matters as contraception and condom use, which some view as facilitating sexual relations by reducing various risks.
Some will argue that state rules on sex education would be like drivers education rules forbidding instructors from answering questions about speeding, running red lights or driving the wrong way on one-way streets. Of course it's a flawed analogy. A driving instructor is encouraging people to drive -- and to do it safely, if you please. A health teacher, by contrast, should not be encouraging sexual relations, safe or otherwise.
But the mere answering of a spontaneous question should not automatically be viewed as sexual encouragement. After all, value judgments can be separated from scientific facts -- and facts should not be feared in any case. A teacher should have the latitude to answer without fear of criminal punishment. Lawyers cannot be consulted during a conversational discussion in a classroom.
Proposals like Wimmer's should worry teachers -- and not just health teachers. It threatens a healthy academic environment generally. All teachers should be concerned when overzealous state laws threaten their ability to discuss the truth. The best teaching and learning takes place in an atmosphere free of threats by Big Brother.
While it's true that course content and discussion should be age-appropriate, the people of Utah don't need a legal sledge hammer to swat this particular gnat.
Sadly, even the threat of making criminals of teachers over trifles can only make recruiting more difficult. Word must be going out in education circles that in Utah paychecks are small, classes are large and giving the wrong answer to a student's question could get you arrested.
Wimmer has said he plans to introduce his legislation next year. It deserves to fail. A teacher's possible misunderstanding of the state curriculum or a misjudgment how best to answer a student's sex-related question hardly constitutes a threat to public safety -- the usual standard for crime.
It's simply the wrong approach. Dropping sex entirely from the curriculum would be better than making teachers criminals for giving a spontaneous answer to a spontaneous question. If sex can't be treated with matter-of-fact candor and directness, it doesn't belong in any academic course of study.
Jordan School District officials should treat the recent incident calmly, if that's still possible. Teachers, like all of us, can make mistakes, and the proper response would have been a private conversation addressing community sensitivities, not a suspension and a big public fuss.
That said, legislators should amend the law to ensure that teachers can teach without unreasonable restrictions or conditions. The current law is vague and dances around an issue that should be met directly.