Young activists are leading the fight for K-12 consent education standards in Minnesota’s public schools.
In health class at Bloomington Jefferson, Abby Honold remembers learning about the danger of STDs, studying male and female anatomy, and watching made-for-TV movies about abusive relationships. But Honold’s public education was defined by what wasn’t taught.
“I don’t remember ever learning anything about consent in school,” said Honold, a sexual assault survivor-turned-advocate.
Honold, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2016, said she didn’t understand what consent was until her college years.
It’s an experience familiar to many students in Minnesota’s public schools. With lacking statewide health standards, most Minnesota public schools fail to teach one of the most important aspects of healthy sexual relationships: consent.
Honold is working to change that.
She is part of Consent(Ed) MN, a seven-person group of young activists, mostly recent college grads, advocating for K-12 consent education curriculum.
“The overall goal of Consent(Ed) MN is to create a health standard in Minnesota schools that requires [consent education] be taught in health classes,” said Angela Vang, a 20-year-old U of M student.
When it comes to sex education, Minnesota has practically no standards.
Vang partnered with Joelle Stangler, the former U of M student body president, to start the group last November. Vang and Stangler both grew up in Minnesota, attended public schools, and came to see the ways in which sex education is lacking throughout the state.
Lacking standards, consistency
When it comes to sex education, Minnesota has practically no standards. State law only requires schools to teach STI/STD education.
This means sex education is largely left to individual school districts, or even individual health teachers, creating a widely disparate landscape for health education throughout the state.
“It’s one of the few areas where schools have a lot of control,” Vang said.
Andrew Beeman, a member of the Consent(Ed) MN team, sees differences in school’s health curriculum first-hand.
Beeman is a sex education teacher with Annex Teen Clinic, a sexual health clinic serving young people. He teaches at several middle and high schools in northern Hennepin County. Some of the schools he works at, he said, are not as open to conversations about healthy sexual relationships as others.
“Because there is no standard, we are at the mercy of what the school approves and wants for their students,” Beeman said.
Consent(Ed) MN emailed every public school district in Minnesota last fall—over 300—to request information about their sex-ed curriculum. Although districts provided a variety of responses, most pointed to the 2007 National Health Education Standards, which mentions nothing about consent.
“None of the schools we’ve talked to so far have implemented standards of what affirmative consent is,” Vang said.
Some health classes may have outside groups come in to discuss sex-ed, such as Planned Parenthood or Annex Teen Clinic. But it’s up to teachers’ discretion.
Vang sees something wrong in this approach.
“The quality of sex education you receive, the health education you receive, shouldn’t depend on which district you live in or the health teacher you have,” Vang said.
Setting students up for success
Consent(Ed) MN has worked with Rep. Erin Maye-Quade, who sponsored a bill (HF 4207) that would require affirmative-consent instruction for all public school students in grades 8-12.
Maye-Quade attached the bill as an amendment to the House education omnibus bill. It was unanimously approved, with bipartisan support. Shortly after, the same amendment was approved in the Senate version of the bill.
The requirement would allow school districts to create their own curriculum addressing consent, which the bill defines as “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.” Essentially, the bill delegates much of the responsibility to individual districts when it comes to implementing programs.
If passed, the bill would make Minnesota one of the nation’s leaders on consent education. California is the only other state to have passed similar standards; at least five other states have tried unsuccessfully, Vang said.
Maye-Quade has found many of her colleagues at the Capitol are supportive of improved consent education.
With lacking statewide health standards, most Minnesota public schools fail to teach one of the most important aspects of healthy sexual relationships: consent.
For her, it’s a matter of preparing students for the real world.
“There are standards about consent in college and if we don’t teach our young students about that then how can we set them up for success and send them off to college?” Maye-Quade said.
Consent on college campuses
Members of Consent(Ed) MN believe that teaching consent is an important step in ending the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses.
“If the first time you learn about consent is when you’re 18, 19, 20 and walking into college and already sexually active, that’s asking someone to walk into a calculus class without ever learning algebra 2,” Vang said.
According to a report by the Association of American Universities, 11.2 percent of all college students experience sexual assault. That number is even more striking for female students, with 23.1 percent experiencing sexual assault at school.
“You can see the effects in the rate of sexual assault we see on college campuses, and the amount of sexual harassment we see in the workplace,” Beeman said. “A lot of it is due to students not getting that foundation for consent early on in life.”
Affirmative consent is already the standard policy in both of Minnesota’s university systems. Last February, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities passed an affirmative consent policy, which requires students to receive a verbal or non-verbal “yes” before engaging in sexual activity. The University of Minnesota passed the same policy in 2015.
Katie Eichele is the director of the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education at the U of M, which provides consent training and education on campus.
Eichele said the Aurora Center breaks down consent into three parts. “One, you have to ask for permission. Two, you have to listen for a response. And three, respect what that response is,” Eichele said.
For Eichele, consent education goes beyond addressing sexual assault; it’s also about building healthy relationships.
“Consent is really focused on how to have healthy physical contact with folks,” she said. “We’re trying to educate individuals on how to build communications skills and healthy relationships with one another.”
Vang and Beeman believe those are lessons that need to start early on in students’ lives.
“We want to make it that college is not the first time students are learning about consent, and what consent means, and that healthy relationship education starts early,” Vang said.
Although some parents and educators may be squeamish to talk to children about sexual contact, Beeman said consent can be taught to younger populations in an age-appropriate manner, without focusing on sex. For children, Beeman said educators can discuss asking for permission for basic requests, such as sharing toys or hugging.
“It’s a concept that if you build it young there’s a lot more success in populations understanding it in a sexual context later in life,” Beeman said.
For as much potential consent education has to impact sexual assault on college campuses, Eichele warned against viewing it as a silver-bullet solution. Although the Aurora Center is supportive of increased consent education, Eichele said, Aurora does not have a stance on Consent(Ed) MN’s efforts.
“Sexual assault is rooted in power and control,” Eichele said. “To simply think that if we educate everyone on consent that sexual assault will decrease, that’s not the only answer. You have to do other things as well.”
The foundation of relationships
In addition to its legislative work, Consent(Ed) MN plans to work with school districts, health teachers, and the public to share data, increase support, and develop consent curriculum programs. The team has seen increasing support for their efforts.
With or without legislation passed this session, Honold sees the team’s efforts as a crucial fight for progress. “Consent [is] the foundation for all sexual activity. If sexual activity does not have consent, it’s not sexual activity—it’s assault,” Honold said.
She believes consent will be more than another boring lesson taught in health classes; it will have a meaningful impact.
“Consent goes beyond consent for sex. It goes into all physical interactions, boundaries, respect, healthy relationships—these are all things that I think will improve once we make sure consent curriculum is being taught in classrooms,” Honold said.