News | Too Much Information: Should teachers be punished for answering sex-ed questions? 

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It’s a good thing that Jennifer Seelig and Carl Wimmer have a nice, solid relationship, even in their polarity. Otherwise, Wimmer, the Republican representative from Herriman, might have taken Seelig’s phone call the wrong way.

“Wimmer, what the hell are you doing?” Seelig screamed, cell-to-cell. She had just read in the morning paper where Wimmer had launched some trial balloons on adding criminal penalties to the state law on sex education. They were balloons that kind of exploded around Seelig, a Democrat from Salt Lake City’s west side.

Even more explosive was reaction on the Internet. Blogs are teeming with anonymous two-cents’-worth of opinion on whether Fort Herriman Middle School teacher Ellen Lindsey was a saint or sinner in answering student questions about sex. Lindsey has been placed on leave—and it’s summer—pending some kind of resolution. Hate mail and raunchy phone messages aim at both sides.

It’s not like the teacher was fresh out of college. Lindsey had retired from Granite District after 30 years and was in her third year in Jordan District. This was an obviously memorable first year at Fort Herriman, where parents appear to be after her hide.

Wimmer says five or six parents in his neighborhood first called, one after another, to complain about Lindsey.

“I heard everything,” Wimmer sighs. Parents said that the teacher talked about performing emergency abortions with coat hangers and advocated homosexual behavior, going into detailed descriptions on how to masturbate. “They were specifically detailed about how women and girls should masturbate,” he says.

Wimmer doesn’t really believe the abortion stuff, although he heard it from two people, but he says the same-sex stuff rang true. News reports say Lindsey sent home a pamphlet entitled, “101 Ways to Make Love Without Doing It,” and showed her eighth-graders a sexually explicit cartoon.

“When you have 20 or 30 kids all confirming the same things, it really helps show you what happened,” he says. “The district felt she was in violation … they felt she violated the law and had gone way too far.”

Lindsey could not be reached for comment, and a district representative would only say that Jordan is an abstinence-only district. “We take our cues from the parents, and they have been very vocal with our school board; that hasn’t changed in the last 12 years I’ve been here,” says spokeswoman Melinda Colton.

Wimmer also takes his cues from parents, and he’s ever accommodating. He’s asked Seelig, who sits on the Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Interim Committee with him, to kibbutz about legislation.

“I’ve got to be honest,” Wimmer says. “I may not attach any penalties to the law. Another option I’m leaning heavily towards is having two adults in the classroom while the sex-ed block is being taught; it protects the teacher from outrageous allegations.”

How outrageous these allegations are is still speculation. Some students have publicly protested their teacher’s plight, while others seemed downright horrified. Some parents suggested that Wimmer’s bill require class sessions to be recorded, but Wimmer worries about the technology costs, among other things.

No matter what the call, legislation will cost education money. Wimmer says the message he’d like to send is that sex-education systems should empower the parent. “If a girl asks, ‘What is masturbation?’ then the teachers can say what it is, but if it goes any further, she would have to say you need to talk to your parents,” Wimmer says.

That would all be fine if parents would actually talk frankly about sex with their kids.

“The real question we have to ask here is when our kids are asking questions, do we provide them with answers or not, do we tell them to go home and ask their parents, and what if their parents won’t tell them? Are they too young to know?” asks Karrie Galloway of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

“I know that Utah policy from the state school board is very confusing to teachers; it says you can’t promote contraception—but promotion can be in the eye of the beholder,” Galloway says.

So, it looks like Utah is in for another round of sex talk on the Hill. It may be good, says Seelig, who’s ready to dialogue.

“I have a stake in this,” Seelig says. “Bottom line is I have a problem in my area and that’s why it’s of concern for me.” Health department statistics showed her that pregnancy rates and instances of gonorrhea and Chlamydia in her legislative district were higher than the state average for 15- to 19-year-olds.

“While adults continue to fight over this issue,” she says, “kids are experimenting with sex unprepared.”

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More by Katharine Biele

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