United States Naval Academy female Midshipmen undergo Sexual Assault Response and Prevention training in February in Annapolis. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

As colleges grapple with the widespread problem of sexual assault, there is a growing consensus that the nation’s schools need to do more to educate young people about sex and relationships before they ever set foot on campus.

A little-noticed measure tucked into the Senate’s 600-page bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind, which passed Thursday, would require the nation’s high schools to begin reporting how they teach students about safe relationships, including what it means to consent to sex and how to avoid sexual violence and coercion. It is one of the ways that advocates, educators and lawmakers are pushing to reexamine what children learn about sex and sexual assault while in public schools.

Many activists see kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) sex education as a missed opportunity to give young people the information they need not only to defend themselves but also to avoid hurting someone else. But sex is — and always has been — a delicate subject for public schools, and while there is a general agreement that teens should be taught how to avoid sexual assault and harassment, there is no consensus about how best to do that.

“There has to be a specific focus on K-12 if you’re ever going to address the problem in colleges,” said Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center, which has filed lawsuits against universities and public school districts accusing them of failing to protect students from sexual harassment and assault. “There is a tremendous amount of work to do.”

College freshmen arrive on campus with vastly different concepts of what constitutes consensual sex and gaps in their knowledge that can leave them vulnerable to assault. A recent poll by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five women experienced unwanted sexual contact while in college. The poll also showed that two people can interpret the same behavior differently: More than 40 percent of students said that nodding in agreement established consent, for example, and more than 40 percent said it did not.


But schools face a challenge as they seek to help fix this problem. Buried in efforts to teach healthy relationships are the same tensions that have made schools a battlefield for advocates of different approaches to sex education.

It is one thing, for example, to teach teenagers that consent means “No means no,” a phrase that implies that students don’t want to and are not going to have sex. But it is another to delve into the nuances of how two people make sure that they both consent to a sexual encounter.

That is a skill that some young people and activists say should be more explicitly taught, but some parents find it objectionable: How do you teach about consenting to sexual experiences, they ask, without implicitly condoning casual sex?

“I think there are many school districts in the country where a teacher would get fired for having a frank discussion like that,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University historian and author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” published this year.

“If you start talking about different ways of . . . expressing consent, I think you’re in a much more complex territory that involves a very frank acknowledgment of teenagers as sexual beings,” Zimmerman said.

Sex education in the United States is uneven. Fewer than half of the states require that it be taught, and there is no federal mandate to test students on the subject. In schools that teach sex education, many focus on anatomy and the basics of preventing pregnancy and disease.

But K-12 schools rarely venture deeply into the complex terrain of sexuality and relationships.

Many assault survivors who participated in the Post poll and follow-up interviews said they believe that middle schools and high schools could prevent sexual violence by providing students with more robust sex education classes.

One survivor, a graduate of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said she was raped repeatedly in a long-term relationship but didn’t realize it because she had never learned the concept of consent. She believed that if her partner wanted sex, she had no choice but to comply.

“I grew up in public schools. We had very little to no sex education,” she said. “I honestly believed — and, oh my god, I can’t believe this but I did — I honestly believed that you could hurt a guy if you said no.”

That is akin to the message Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) heard from anti-sexual-violence activists he met at the University of Virginia following the publication of a now-discredited story in Rolling Stone magazine about an alleged violent rape on that campus.

Many of the students told Kaine that their high school sex education classes had delved into reproductive biology but had little to say about consent or relationships, leaving them unprepared to navigate college safely.

“It was kind of a light-bulb moment for me,” said Kaine, who then introduced the safe-relationships provision that is in the Senate’s bipartisan bill to rewrite No Child Left Behind. “This is a public safety reality. If we can educate kids and thereby there will be fewer victims but also fewer perpetrators, then it is the right thing to do.”

The House has passed its version of the bill, which does not include Kaine’s provision and instead prohibits schools from using programs that “normalize teen sexual activity as an expected behavior.”

A spokeswoman for Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the chairman of the House education committee and the bill’s lead sponsor, said that language clarifies current law and would allow schools to “support responsible sex education and discuss the role of consent in that setting.”

Many students have experiences with sex — and sexual harassment and assault — before they reach college.

Nearly two-thirds of 12th graders have had sexual intercourse, according to a 2013 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in 10 female high school students say they have been physically forced to have intercourse when they did not want to, the survey found.

Advocates of abstinence-only sex education say that teaching consent is incomplete without also teaching why the best choice for teens is to wait for sex. Even if two parties each get a “yes” from one another as their encounter progresses, “this is no guarantee against sexual assault. The problem really emanates from a lack of respect for the other person,” said Valerie Huber, president of the National Abstinence Education Association.

Those who support comprehensive sex education say that the best way to help children is to teach the benefits of abstinence but also offer access to a wide range of information — including about gender identity, sexual orientation, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, healthy relationships and consent — to help students make decisions and navigate their sexual lives.

“It is a myth, this idea that if you give young people information that it causes them to have sex,” said Debra Hauser of Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit. “Information is power. Information builds a sense of agency.”

But some parents see a blurry line between teaching about sex and creating an expectation of casual sex.

One mother in Lafayette, Calif., said she wants her children to learn about sex. But she worries that sex education at her daughter’s school, in the Acalanes Union High School District, is taught in a manner that trivializes sex, treating it as a recreational activity instead of as a special part of a loving relationship between committed people.

“That’s the perspective I’m teaching my kids — this is a gift, it’s beautiful and huge, it can be overwhelming and it must be honored as such,” said the mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her children, who attend district schools. “Whereas in school, this is just sex, and you can do it whenever you want as long as you have a ‘yes’ and latex.”

She said Planned Parenthood educators at her daughter’s high school taught consent by giving out a worksheet with suggested language: “Can I touch you here? Do you want to take off my pants?”

“I believe the school district, in an effort to teach consent, taught kids a lot of ways to invite someone to have sex,” she said.

John Nickerson, the district superintendent, disagreed. Teachers and principals who observed the lessons said they discouraged sexual activity by helping students understand the complexity of the decision to become sexually active, he said.

Kristin Sanders, 19, said she felt she couldn’t talk to her parents about getting birth control when she was in high school in Broward County, Fla. In her Hispanic Caribbean family, talking about sex — and having sex as a teen — was not accepted.

Sanders joined other students to push the Broward County school system — the sixth-largest in the nation — to adopt a comprehensive sex education curriculum in 2014. The new approach includes guidelines for learning about respectful, healthy relationships beginning in elementary school.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me to help young women around me who were going through the exact same thing,” said Sanders, now a sophomore at Florida State University.

Zimmerman, the historian, said that because sex is so weighted with values, he anticipates a “tough slog” as K-12 schools figure out how to teach about consent and assault. He said he understands why lawmakers want schools to teach about “healthy relationships.” “But let’s not pretend that we have a consensus about what that term means,” he said. “Because we don’t.”