Lawmakers consider bill requiring consent education in schools

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

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

For preschool and kindergarten students, Nugent talks about high fives. If you want your friend to give you a high five, you have to ask him if he wants it. Sometimes your friend may not want to, and that’s okay.

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

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

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

“It’s 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 preventive 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 violence. sexual violence in New Hampshire, where one in four women and one in 20 men said they had been sexually assaulted, according to the coalition.

“Through this education, students have come to understand what healthy relationship dynamics look like and learned to identify unhealthy relationships and grooming behaviors, all important skills that will have lasting impacts on their development as they grow. they will become mature adults,” Keilig told lawmakers. “What this legislation proposes will only enhance our response as a state to end sexual violence as we continue to maximize our efforts to prevent abuse before it happens.”

Emily Murphy, Violence Prevention Educator for HAVEN New Hampshire, has been providing prevention education in schools for over 17 years. During last week’s hearing, Murphy told lawmakers that while the job isn’t always easy, it is “incredibly rewarding.”

“Children don’t automatically know what’s OK. Social media and the culture as a whole 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-informed education around consent and sexual violence prevention can neutralize some of the toxic media children are inundated with on a daily basis.”

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

Nugent said the curriculum for elementary students focuses on recognizing emotions in themselves and others, asking 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 children to respect each other’s boundaries and communicate their own.

“There’s so much conditioning of children to make them accommodating, we adults do this to children all the time,” Nugent said. “We try to stop them from talking, we force them to kiss people close to them, we tell them to sit down and they have to shut up and they have to listen, and we don’t listen back. A big part of our program is just about empowering kids to feel able to express themselves and to feel like it’s okay for them to have boundaries and it’s okay for them to not like things.

In a 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 signs of body language that accompany these emotions.

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

In grades eleven and twelve, Nugent leads a handshake activity where students experience the difference between a soft, “dead fish” handshake and a strong, reciprocal handshake, to recognize when someone is a voluntary participant.

“We try to make it fun; we try to make it as light as possible; we have the idea that if they’re having fun, they learn more,” Nugent said. “We’re trying to build it off of the relationships that they probably already had, so if they had a friendship that maybe wasn’t the greatest friendship, we could talk about that and how respect is really the foundation. of all.”

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 told the hearing that this type of education can be a “lifeline” for children who have experienced trauma.

“It is our responsibility to protect young people in our state,” Murphy said. “And providing adequate education about consent and the prevention of sexual violence is key to ensuring they grow up healthy, happy and safe.”

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