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Bill would mandate affirmative-consent instruction for all Minnesota public high school students

As affirmative-consent policies become the norm on college campuses, advocates say it’s time to prepare high schoolers. 

Abby Honold, Angela Vang and Andrew Beeman have joined other young adults to advocate for legislation that would make affirmative-consent education a required part of high school health curriculum, statewide.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Since graduating from the University of Minnesota, Abby Honold, 23, has been working in sexual-assault advocacy, speaking at local middle and high schools about things like the importance of consent when it comes to building healthy relationships.

As a survivor of sexual assault, she says she often begins her presentations by correcting a misperception that surfaces as her hosts introduce the topic — that sexual assault is a scary thing that isn’t relevant to them yet.

“I start off [saying], ‘It happened to me in college. But it happened to many of my friends in high school,’” she said. “They deserve to be hearing good information. And they deserve to be ready for college as well.”

Both of Minnesota’s colleges and university systems have adopted affirmative-consent policies, with the University of Minnesota doing so in 2015 and Minnesota State following suit this past February. The policy — which flips the “no means no” standard in its head so that students are now expected to obtain “affirmative consent” from their partner before engaging in a sexual act — has gained traction at higher education institutions across the nation in recent years. But Honold says it’s now time to get serious about equipping Minnesota’s high schoolers with a better understanding of what affirmative consent means.

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So far, California is the only state to have established an affirmative-consent education requirement for high schoolers. Even there, the mandate only applies to all public school districts that have a health education course as a graduation requirement.

Honold is one of seven young adults who joined forces just a few months ago to advocate for similar legislation in Minnesota, a law that would make affirmative-consent education a required part of high school health curriculum. The group, Consent Education Minnesota, is primarily made up of recent University of Minnesota graduates. Joelle Stangler, a former student body president at the U, and Angela Vang, a current student at the U who’s long been interested in education reform, are credited with spearheading the effort.

They’ve been working closely with Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, who authored a bill (House File 4207) that would mandate affirmative-consent instruction for all public school students in grades 8-12, to “prevent and reduce the incidence of sexual assault.” As specified in the bill, “consent” must be affirmed by each party involved in a sexual activity. Things like “a lack of protest” or “the existence of a dating relationship” do not qualify as indicators of consent.

Maye Quade offered the bill as an amendment to the House education omnibus bill last week, and it was added with unanimous, bipartisan support. She says it’s a common-sense measure that would help ensure young people are entering college — as well as the workforce — knowing how to interact with others in an appropriate way. “I liken it to teaching students about plagiarism,” she said. “We teach high school students about plagiarism, so that when they go to college, they know about that.”

‘It’s ultimately about healthy relationships’

Unlike postsecondary affirmative-consent policies that come attached to behavioral consequences, the proposed affirmative-consent requirement for grades 8-12 is focused solely on ensuring that students are learning about affirmative consent at school.  

“It’s not a behavior rule in schools,” Honold said.

State Rep. Erin Maye Quade
State Rep. Erin Maye Quade

Vang, 20, adds that the bill her group is backing does not mandate how affirmative consent should be taught in the classroom. Rather, it leaves quite a bit of room for districts and health teachers to decide how they’d like to teach this concept — whether that means drilling down on definitions, or focusing more on engaging students in self-reflection and discussion.

Andrew Beeman, 25, a current employee with Annex Teen Clinic who teaches sex education in local middle and high schools, says the bill would set a common expectation that’s needed. “Through my own work, as a sex ed teacher, I’ve been able to see the patchwork across the state and the need for there to be some quality assurance,” he said.  

He joined the Consent Education Minnesota group because he keeps hearing, from students, that they want more information on building healthy relationships, and consent is a huge part of what he ends up talking about.

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What it looks like

Offering some examples of what affirmative-consent instruction looks like in practice, Beeman said it’s more than simply getting students to understand and respect physical boundaries. It can also include things like teaching students about visual harassment and consent.

“If someone shows you an intimate photo, you can’t show that to all your friends,” he said, noting this is the sort of thing that many teenagers don’t think of as breaking someone’s consent.

Honold says that, ideally, consent education is woven into many of the existing health education lessons; rather than being taught as a stand-alone topic. In her prior experience as a preschool teacher, she says she was able to incorporate these concepts into lots of her interactions with students and parents.

For instance, she says she talked with her students about how to set boundaries and ask for permission to touch someone else, even when it involved something as seemingly benign as a hug or play wrestling. The bill she’s advocating for won’t cover elementary students or most middle schoolers, but she thinks they’d benefit from age-appropriate affirmative-consent education as well.

“A lot of times we get questions about: ‘Are you going to teach kindergarteners about sex?’ ” she said. “Consent education can be applied to sex. But it’s ultimately about healthy relationships. I think that should be taught from a young age.”

Vang says Consent Education Minnesota has submitted data requests to every Minnesota public school district to see what their local health curriculum includes. What they’ve found, so far, is that some individual teachers or guest speakers may incorporate affirmative-consent lessons into their instruction. But it’s not explicitly included in any district’s curriculum.

“We’d like to create a database so local advocates can see what the state of their local health curriculum looks like,” she said. “I really don’t think that the quality of your health education, or whether or not you’re being taught consent should be dependent upon the teacher that you have.”