Legislators consider bill to require consent education in schools

Monitor staff
Published: 1/22/2022 6:37:24 PM
Modified: 1/22/2022 6:36:10 PM

When Keene-based prevention educator Katrina Nugent teaches middle and high schoolers about consent, she often uses the example of a basketball game.

If you want to play a game of basketball, you wouldn’t start by throwing the ball at your friend’s face, Nugent explains. You’d start by asking your friend if they want to play. Then other details can be negotiated, such as where the game will take place.

For pre-school and kindergarten students, Nugent talks about high fives. If you want your friend to give you a high five, you have to ask them if they want to. Sometimes your friend might not want to, and that’s OK.

Nugent is the prevention education director for the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention in Keene. She maintains the organization’s consent education curriculum, does community outreach and provides violence prevention programming for all ages, from preschoolers to adults at schools, colleges, community centers and businesses throughout Cheshire County and parts of Hillsboro County.

“It’s really more about communication skills and empathy-building than it is about learning about sex,” Nugent said. “It’s about all those other things that are based in respect and based in healthy relationships.”

A bill filed in the New Hampshire State House this month seeks to require that health education in public schools include lessons on consent, including respect for personal boundaries and sexual violence prevention. The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Amanda Elizabeth Toll, a Keene Democrat, said at a House Education Committee hearing Tuesday that her goal for the legislation is to give young Granite Staters the skills to be able to respect each other’s choices, build healthy relationships and protect themselves from abuse.

“This is not a radical idea,” Toll said. “We already teach our students about physical education, hygiene and the impact of alcohol and drugs. We clearly share a vision of wanting to keep young people safe and healthy. Teaching consent is something that is preventative and already normalized in many other states.”

New Hampshire violence prevention advocates like Pamela Keilig, public policy specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, say the bill, HB1533, could have a significant impact on preventing sexual violence in New Hampshire, where one in four women and one in 20 men have reported being sexually assaulted, according to the coalition.

“Because of this education, students have come to understand what healthy relationship dynamics look like and learn how to identify unhealthy relationships and grooming behaviors, all important skills that will have long-lasting impacts on their development as they grow into mature adults,” Keilig told lawmakers. “What this legislation proposes will only improve our response as a state to ending sexual violence as we continue to maximize our efforts to prevent abuse before it occurs.”

Emily Murphy, violence prevention educator for HAVEN New Hampshire, has been doing prevention education in schools for over 17 years. At last week’s hearing, Murphy told lawmakers that while the work isn’t always easy, it is “incredibly rewarding.”

“Kids don’t automatically know what’s OK. Social media and the culture at large can send very strange messages about whether you need consent, and what a healthy relationship looks like,” Murphy said. “Sharing that there is developmentally appropriate trauma-aware education around consent and sexual violence prevention can neutralize some of the toxic media that kids are inundated with on basically a daily basis.”

In classrooms, consent education looks different depending on the age of the students and the chosen curriculum. Nugent said Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention’s middle and high school program is seven 45-minute sessions per year, while programs in preschool to sixth grade are six 30-minute sessions per year. Murphy said at the hearing that HAVEN’s program offers one 45-minute session for kindergartners, one hour-long session for first to sixth graders, two hour-long sessions for seventh graders and three hour-long sessions for eighth graders.

Nugent said the curriculum for elementary students focuses on recognizing emotions in themselves and others, asking for permission and understanding bodily autonomy. In one activity, children are given a paper hand on a stick and practice asking each other for high fives. The goal, according to Nugent, is to teach kids to be respectful of each others’ boundaries and also how to communicate their own.

“There’s so much conditioning of children to make them accommodating, we adults do that to kids all the time,” Nugent said. “We try to make them not speak up, we force them to hug relatives, we tell them they have to sit down and they have to be quiet and they have to listen, and we don’t listen to them back. A lot of our program is really just empowering kids to feel like they can speak up for themselves and to feel like it’s OK for them to have boundaries and it’s OK for them to not like things.”

In one body language activity Nugent does with all ages, students take turns acting out emotions, charades-style: happy, nervous, tired, uncomfortable. They practice recognizing in others the body language signs that go along with those emotions.

Starting around eighth grade and continuing through high school, Nugent’s curriculum begins to relate more to relationships and sexual consent. The students have discussions about what healthy relationships look like and learn to identify unhealthy behaviors like forced kissing that is often portrayed as “romantic” in TV and movies. They discuss social pressures and coercion and how alcohol or a power imbalance between two individuals can negate consent.

In eleventh and twelfth grade, Nugent facilitates a handshake activity where students experience the difference between a limp, “dead fish” handshake and a strong, reciprocal handshake, to recognize when someone is a willing participant.

“We try to make it fun; we try to make it light-hearted as much as possible; we do have the idea that if they’re having fun, then they’re learning more,” Nugent said. “We do try to build it from what relationships they probably already had, so if they’ve had a friendship that maybe wasn’t the greatest friendship, we might talk about that and how respect is really the foundation for everything.”

Many prevention educators report seeing an impact on the students they work with. Sometimes, after a lesson, a child will disclose abuse to a trusted adult after learning the skills to identify and articulate it. Murphy said at the hearing that this kind of education can be a “lifeline” for kids who have experienced trauma.

“It is our responsibility to protect young people in our state,” Murphy said. “And providing adequate education on consent and sexual violence prevention is essential in order to ensure they grow up healthy, happy and safe.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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