As sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate headlines, exposing scandals that have touched Hollywood stars, pop singers and gymnastics gold medalists, the issue has seeped into conversations among students in the nation’s schools.
“It’s in our world. We talk about it a lot,” said Maeve Sanford-Kelly, an eighth grader at North Bethesda Middle School. So she thought it was weird that they never talk about it in her health classes.
Her mother, Maryland Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery) agreed with her. Together they came up with a way to change that — through a bill that would require public schools to provide age-appropriate instruction on the meaning of “consent” and respect for personal boundaries.
In a House committee hearing last week in Annapolis, 13-year-old Maeve testified in support of the bill, which was approved by an education subcommittee Tuesday.
“Why don’t our schools teach us that this is not how we treat people?” she asked. “We cannot spend one more day allowing people to grow up and continue this culture of predatory behavior.”
In the past few years, amid reports of widespread sexual violence on college campuses and a still-growing #MeToo movement, state lawmakers and educators are grappling with how to shape a future generation that will not repeat the same mistakes. Many say that waiting until freshman orientation sessions in college, when the topic of consent is increasingly taught, is too late to introduce such foundational concepts of respect and setting boundaries.
This year, at least two dozen states are considering legislation that would incorporate sexual violence prevention into middle and high school curriculums, or sooner. Bills introduced in New Jersey, Missouri, Oklahoma and Michigan are among those that would require or allow teachers to address the issue of requesting and recognizing consent before engaging in sexual activity. In Maryland, a companion bill in the Senate was approved unanimously in committee on Tuesday and is expected to move to the Senate for a vote on Thursday.
“Clearly this is an issue of our time and this is a huge problem. Here is an answer to the question, ‘But what do we do?’” said Chitra Panjabi, the president and chief executive of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States or SIECUS, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for comprehensive sex education and has been tracking this legislation.
Panjabi’s organization, with help from Tarana Burke, the activist who first conceived of the #MeToo movement, announced a campaign last November called #TeachThem to highlight the lack of education around sexual assault and harassment in U.S. schools. It published a tool kit to help people advocate for change in their local schools, which has since been downloaded 1,000 times, Panjabi said.
Advocates say teaching about consent from an early age — the idea that they have a right to consent or not, and an obligation to obtain consent — can help students learn to build healthy relationships and prevent sexual violence.
Many advocates say that students should be taught the principle of affirmative consent, or “yes means yes,” for any kind of sexual activity. The approach, which is used as a legal standard on many college campuses, teaches that silence does not mean yes and challenges gender roles that presume men are sexually aggressive and women should be responsible for setting boundaries.
In Maryland, if the law is passed, schools would be required to introduce the concept of consent at least once in middle school and once in high school. Local school boards could decide how new curriculum requirements would be implemented in age-appropriate ways.
California in 2015 was the first state to require that students learn about consent, part of a broader law aimed at teaching about healthy relationships. Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a law permitting but not requiring schools to teach about consent in high school while requiring age-appropriate instruction about preventing dating violence and sexual abuse.
Sex education remains a highly polarizing issue in many communities. Opponents of consent education are often concerned that it would condone or encourage sexual activity among young people. Many politicians prefer that the topic be addressed by local school boards or left to parents.
Some men’s groups also have opposed policies that mandate consent education, saying that such lessons often paint a negative portrait of men as perpetrators of sexual crimes, and do not include examples of how men can also be victims.
Kelly, the Maryland bill’s sponsor, is president of the women’s legislative caucus and has been at the forefront of discussions about sexual harassment in Annapolis this session and led efforts to update the legislature’s anti-harassment policy.
Kelly said she was at first uncertain about introducing her consent bill statewide because she anticipated controversy. Her initial proposal, which she introduced last year, focused only on changing the curriculum in Montgomery County. But with urging from student advocates, she broadened it to include all school districts in the state.
She got a strong reception. The bill passed in the state House last year, but stalled in the Senate. A year later, Kelly said a greater understanding of what consent education is exists and, because of the #MeToo movement, why it matters. Montgomery County already incorporated the concept into its Family Life and Human Sexuality curriculum starting this school year.
In many states, as in Maryland, young people are leading efforts to advocate for changes to the way their teachers and schools are addressing sexual violence.
Last year, the Nevada Youth Legislature, a body of 21 appointed students who have authority to propose legislation, succeeded in getting a bill passed that would require public schools to teach about consent.
“Young people are really the changemakers,” said Esther Warkov, co-founder of the advocacy group Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. “Parents aren’t really that aware of the magnitude of the problem, but students know firsthand what they are experiencing.”
Research shows that many children and teens experience sexual violence.
In a national survey, 42 percent of female rape survivors said they were under 18 when they were first raped, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Twenty-eight percent of male survivors said they were first raped when they were 10 or younger.
Sexual crimes or harassing behavior often occur on school property. Twenty-one percent of middle school students reported that they experienced unwanted physical touching on school grounds, according to a 2014 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Warkov became painfully aware of this issue when her daughter was allegedly raped while on an overnight field trip with her Seattle high school.
Warkov said consent education policies only scratch the surface of what schools need to do to create safe spaces for students.
Schools, like universities, are covered under Title IX laws that require schools to protect students from sexual harassment, though they rarely report crimes or acknowledge they have a problem, she said.
Her organization launched a #metook12 campaign in January to encourage students who have been harassed or assaulted while at school to speak out.
In Annapolis last week, Maeve was joined by several other students to advocate for the bill. One, a female student from Wheaton High School in Silver Spring, testified that when she was 13 she played with a boys’ soccer team and every time she got knocked over, someone would reach down to help her up, then touch her body in a different place.
Her attempts to say no were not enough, she said. But she thinks schools can help set those boundaries.
“We need to be able to teach young children what can be right and what can’t be,” she said.