For years, parents have asked Daniel Howa Pendergrass to give their children a “talk.” They were worried that not all sex education facilities were covered in their child’s classroom and did not know how to start the conversation on their own. Howa Pendergrass, a practicing nurse who owns and manages a women’s health clinic in eastern Utah, will hold one-on-one discussions with teenagers until he comes up with an idea for a broader approach.

In late 2020, she launched a sex education program called the Eastern Utah Teen Council, outside her clinic, to fill knowledge gaps for local teens. “I would never have thought of joining a community and starting a program that no one wanted,” says Howa Pendergrass. “It was from listening, from hearing, from the people who ask, from seeing the problems that arise when we are not talking, and from knowing – that’s why you start something like this.”

Together with program facilitator Tommy Lasley, she strives to provide adolescents with accurate and inclusive information about sex and healthy relationships. Howa Pendergrass believes that this community-driven approach has provided a lifeline for teenagers who are otherwise ignorant of topics such as consent that are not covered in the health program of a country that emphasizes abstinence.

Utah teenagers seem to need this lifeline. Rape is the only violent crime in Utah that is committed at a higher rate than the national average, based on US Indicator-based public health information system. However, the deputies of the state have vote against update its sex education curriculum to include more information on sexual violence resources and prevention strategies over the last two consecutive years.

While abstinence is theoretically an effective method of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies between partners by mutual consent, abstinence training does not prepare teenagers to make informed decisions regarding their sexual health, researchers say in a review paper published by Adolescent Health Magazine. In the event of an unplanned pregnancy, Utahans’ capabilities may soon be limited. The state has the so-called trigger law in a place that will ban almost all abortions if the Supreme Court overturns Rowe vs. Wade.

As the debate over sex education and reproductive health continues to unfold across the country, Howa Pendergrass is hoping for a day when her program will become obsolete through a more lasting solution. “The whole dream with Teen Council is to continue and support it until it’s unnecessary – until we make these bigger and wider changes to where they can get an education in schools,” she said.

This story was co-published with the Salt Lake Tribune. Read it coverage here. The short documentary was supported by Pulitzer Center.

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