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Sexual orientation question remains off high school student survey after districts object

SALT LAKE CITY — A question about a high school student’s sexual orientation will not be included on a survey this year. With suicide rates among teens on the rise in Utah, health leaders wanted to gather information about a student’s sexual orientation, but they faced resistance from some school districts.

Every two years, Utah high school students are asked to fill out the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The information gives the Utah Department of Health a gauge of health issues schools should address in the classroom.

This year, they wanted to add a question about a student’s sexual orientation. The survey is confidential, needs parental consent, and participants are allowed to skip any questions.

“It's a very simple question that simply asks, 'How would you describe yourself? Heterosexual, gay, bisexual, don't know, refused',” said Michael Friedrichs, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

With backing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Friedrichs was pushing for the data to give him insight on the state’s suicide epidemic among teens.

“We've had a tremendous increase in adolescent suicides over the last five or six years - over 200 percent increase,” Friedrichs said.

According to Friedrichs, two of Utah’s school districts, in Davis and Cache counties, didn’t feel comfortable adding the question and threatened to pull the survey altogether.

“Cache School District didn't really give us a reason. They just said 'We're not going to do it.' Davis said that they didn't feel that students were ready to answer these questions at this time and some students wouldn't know," Friedrichs said.

Fox 13 reached out to both districts but did not hear back. With the districts refusing to add the question, health leaders didn’t meet the 60% participation rate. That means for now, the question cannot be added to the survey.

“This is very disheartening,” said Troy Williams, executive director for Equality Utah.

Williams believes that by not getting this information, it will do more harm than good.

“By refusing to ask about sexual orientation in this survey, the school districts in Davis and Cache County are sending a message to gay students: that their lives are too shameful to discuss,” Williams said.

Health leaders say they are merely trying to gather information, not suggesting immorality.

“That’s what is frustrating to me. I really feel like good, scientific sound, valid information is a better way to engage partners, make good decisions and create programs that help youth,” Williams said.

Friedrichs admits that more communication is needed between health leaders and parents. He says he’ll continue to push for the sexual orientation question for the next survey administered in 2019.