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In the #MeToo era, should Minnesota schools be teaching consent?

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Hopkins High School sit-in
Students participate in a sit-in at Hopkins High School to "protest the silencing of victims of sexual harassment" on Sept. 27, 2018.
Courtesy of Sally Reed

When Jessica Melnik staged a sit-in at Hopkins High School in early October to show her solidarity with sexual assault victims, she wanted to make it clear that men who think it's OK to rape women don't become that way the moment they step onto college campus grounds.

"I think it's a culture that starts from kindergarten and goes all the way up until college," Melnik said.

To Melnik, the protest was just one way to raise awareness about the lack of resources for high school students surrounding sexual assault and prevention.

While recent months have brought to light how colleges and universities are struggling to deal with sexual assault on their campuses, high schools and even middle schools are also facing challenges. Advocates in Minnesota say even in the #MeToo era, high schools and middle schools aren't adequately teaching students the fundamentals of sexual consent.

"School districts are pressed for time, and unfortunately health classes traditionally have been one of those classes that get chipped away," said Andrew Beeman, a sexuality educator for the Annex Teen Clinic in Robbinsdale. "Teaching kids how to interact with other people and how to respect everyone's own ability to choose who and who doesn't touch their own body is important."

Beeman is a part of ConsentEd Minnesota. The organization advocates for creating a standard for consent education to be included in middle and high school curriculum.

Rep. Erin Maye Quade speaks to a crowd at the Minnesota State Capitol
Rep. Erin Maye Quade speaks to a crowd at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul during a rally against sexual harassment on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. "The worst part of this is not that I was harassed, but that the people that harassed me don't think it was wrong," Maye Quade said.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The group worked alongside Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, earlier this year to lobby for a bill that would mandate consent education in K-12 health classrooms. The bill would require all high schools to teach "affirmative" consent in the classroom.

The proposal failed to make it into a larger budget and policy bill that was sent to the governor, Maye Quade said.

"One of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle tried to paint it as though we were trying to teach sex to children," Quade said.

Quade, who gave up her legislative seat when she ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, isn't sure if the bill will be revived next session in the House, which is now under DFL control. But she's hopeful.

Advocates say they're not giving up their push to have schools teach the principles of consent — the earlier, the better. And not just on the rare occasion. For instance, advocates say, even kindergarteners can be taught to respect boundaries, and that it's not OK to touch their classmates without asking.  

Beeman said it's also not enough to bring students to the gym to hear a guest speaker talk about consent on a single day. Instead, it's a "continual reminder throughout a child's schooling that they need to communicate with others before doing things with them," he said

To Beeman, that means having entire units dedicated to discussing how to acquire consent, talking through one's boundaries, and explain what consent actually is.

University of Minnesota students were among the first in the state to push for an affirmative consent policy in 2015. The policy required clearly communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity. Once the Minnesota State Board of Trustees approved the policy change, all Minnesota State Colleges and Universities followed.

Angela Vang, another member of ConsentEd Minnesota, said high schools and middle schools should be doing the same thing. Vang said boys should not grow up in a culture that trivializes sexual assault. And they shouldn't be learning about consent for the first time when they set foot on a university campus at the age of 18, she said.

Under the federal Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to report sexual assault statistics. For middle and high schools, no such equivalent exists. National data show teen sexual assault is common and underreported.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resources Center, one out of four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18. Nearly 20 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, according to Justice Department statistics.

Hopkins High School sit-in
Students participate in a sit-in at Hopkins High School to "protest the silencing of victims of sexual harassment" on Sept. 27, 2018.
Courtesy of Sally Reed

Women between age 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to experience rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

A third of girls who have experienced harassment or sexual abuse said they did nothing in response to the harassment or assault, according to the National Women's Law Center.

"We're talking about this sexual violence occurring early in life and having long standing harm," Beatriz Menanteau, supervisor for the state health department's Violence Prevention Programs Unit. "So any prevention efforts need to happen early in life as well."

Emily Bisek, assistant director of communications at the Minnesota Department of Education, said the department tries to provide support in making sure students feel safe in schools. But it isn't involved in determining the content for  health curriculum.

"Minnesota school districts and charter schools make their own decisions about curriculum, staff, classes and much more," Bisek said in an email. "This gives them the ability to choose how they handle sexual assault prevention within their schools."

Beeman says when he goes into classrooms to teach presentations on sexuality, most of the students are looking for guidance on issues they don't get definitive answers on, such as healthy relationships and sexual assault prevention.

Isadora Colón, a student at the FAIR School, a fine arts high school in downtown Minneapolis, said she thinks schools need to offer a better curriculum because it ultimately affects the way teens talk about sexual violence.

"I have been in situations where my peers have been unaware of how to talk about a subject like consent and have offended others with their words," Colón said. "It's important for victims, allies and families of victims to know the first steps to take when someone is assaulted."