Voices of Youth: Students advocate for consent education to combat sexual assault and harassment

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student artists Vaishnavi Attili and Tova Weiss examine the issues of sexual harassment/assault and consent education in schools.

This story contains descriptions of sexual assault and harassment. An asterisk (*) denotes names that have been changed to protect the identity of minor sources. 

Emma Collins*, a 17-year-old student at Washtenaw International High School, said "no" when a male student from one of her classes messaged her on Instagram, turned on the "disappearing messages" feature, and asked Emma to send explicit pictures of herself and have sex with him. The male student pressured her for hours and Emma clearly refused several times. It didn’t stop him from trying to convince her, however. 

She told her parents, who spoke to school administrators, which separated the students' seating arrangements in the class and had a talk with the male student's parents. However, the male student was still allowed to hold positions of influence in the school – he gave speeches at concerts and was allowed to remain the president of a school club.

"It felt like he had a position of power. It was stressful to deal with, and I didn’t know how to react," Emma says. "He is respected in the school. He has a good reputation with the teachers and a lot of teachers like him."

The perpetrator was known as a funny and caring person, and what he did to Emma was the last thing fellow students expected from him. But what bothered his classmates more was that he didn’t seem to be facing any visible consequences for his actions. 

Unfortunately, many youth are telling similar stories. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), one in nine girls and one in 20 boys, ages 14-17, have been victims of sexual assault. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says that 63% of sexual assaults are not reported. 

After interviewing and talking to peers in our schools, we discovered a huge lack of consent education in Washtenaw County elementary, middle, and high schools. About 28 of the 32 people that we spoke with – representing 11 middle schools and 5 high schools in Washtenaw County – replied that they received little or no consent, sex, and human relations education during elementary and middle school. 

Additionally, education on how to handle sexual assault is very limited. Many youth we talked to expressed concerns. How to act/react after being assaulted is something that is not talked about in schools enough. Although vague steps such as “tell a trusted adult” or “report it to administration” are mentioned superficially, this is nowhere near enough to fully educate people about dealing with these problems. A look at 2019 events at Community High School is an example of how complicated situations can become.  

Tell a friend, help a friend

Victoria Lucas*, a freshman at Pioneer High School, responded with her usual friendly energy when a male student in her orchestra class wanted to be friends. The male student had, in the past, said extremely creepy things about other girls in the school. But Victoria, new to the school, was unaware of this. A few of her friends sat her down and told her about him, including sharing screenshots of things he’d said, such as sexual fantasies about girls he’d liked in the past. Victoria was horrified, and did her best to avoid further interactions with him. 

A couple of weeks after this warning, Victoria was waiting in a side hall by a side door for her mom to pick her up from school. The male student saw her and followed her there. First, he sat uncomfortably close to her, talking. She was uncomfortable, but there was another student in the hallway at the time. 

After that person left, Victoria says the male student forced her to the ground and sexually assaulted her.

“It happened in a blink of the eye, and he was on top of me,” she says. “My immediate fears were, 'I am going to die, because he is suffocating me.'”   

Victoria is petite, and the male student's body weight made her unable to move or call for help. It wasn’t until a friend of Victoria's happened down the hallway that the male student got off of her. 

The friend instantly ran to get a counselor for help. The counselor got there and pulled Victoria aside, under the pretense of talking about her schedule. Knowing he’d been caught, the male student had mostly moved off of Victoria. She was in a state of shock.

"When someone sexually assaults you, everything that is yours is like a bubble that has been popped," Victoria says. "They own your psyche at that point and that's horrible. It's really horrible."

She shares that people who have been sexually assaulted are stripped "of a lot of things that you don't realize," such as their sense of humanity, their dignity, their peace of mind, and even "the privacy of their dreams."

"I have nightmares," she says. "I still have really bad nightmares about that happening, and I know that's probably not going to go away soon. Your sleep, that one private place, is gone." 

Experts say that it is extremely important to know how to support someone disclosing a sexual assault. Equally important is knowing what to do if you witness a sexual assault. Lack of education on how to respond can lead to people unknowingly exacerbating an already traumatic experience.

Is it time for more education? 

A study by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund shows that less than a third of students in the United States were taught anything related to consent, sexual assault, or relationships in middle or high school.

“Among those that did receive some education, people were most likely to have been taught how to say no to sex in both middle (25%) and high (33%) school and least likely to have been taught how to ask for consent in both middle (14%) and high (21%) school," the study says.

Victoria feels very strongly about the need for consent education. 

"Girls are not asking to be assaulted. Nothing is 'asking for it,'" she says. "Nothing except a yes is a yes. Everything else is a no."

The recently passed Michigan Senate Bill 66 mandates that all Michigan public schools provide age-appropriate information about sexual violence and resources to middle and high schoolers. The material must include explanations of consent. Michigan Sen. Stephanie Chang, who co-sponsored the bill, worked with a number of high school students who conducted a survey of their peers similar to ours. Those high schoolers found that most of their peers had never received any information in school about what sexual assault is, or who to go to for resources. 

"The fact that there are so many young people that currently don't feel like they've gotten any information about this topic is a problem," Sen. Chang says. "This is important not just for those who are survivors. It's also important for those who may disclose to them."

She adds, "We found that sometimes young people, due to the circumstance, may not actually even know that what happened to them was sexual assault and a crime. Being able to receive this education can really change a lot of peoples' lives."

Consent education is one of the key ways to combat this issue. Although school curricula do include consent education in health class, which covers healthy human behavior and connection, sex education, and health as a whole, the course only covers a single semester in high school. 

What could be changed in the way the schools cover consent education to more effectively teach students its importance? Integrating consent education into the school system from K-12, rather than confining it to brief mentions in elementary and middle school and a single unit in high school, would bring this issue closer to the forefront of students' minds, and cast necessary light on the importance of consent education. 

A misconception about sex education is that it only talks about pregnancy and contraception, but this is not accurate. Sex education encompasses all of the following and more: consent, boundaries, self-care, pregnancy, contraception, and LGBTQIA+ inclusivity. 

For elementary and middle school, teaching it under a name like “human relations," as opposed to sex education, would more accurately and approachably portray what sex ed is about. Consent and boundaries are something that need to be continuously reinforced from childhood, and it’s really important to integrate it into a part of the school curriculum.

When incidents of sexual assault do take place, there needs to be awareness surrounding resources for survivors. Some more commonly known resources that are available to student survivors of sexual assault include school therapists and trusted teachers, guardians, or other adults. Additionally, there are multiple organizations and resources available to any and all survivors which many people are not aware of. These include but are not limited to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673), RAINN, and SafeHouse Center. 

Student power: Ending sexual assault in schools

Know Your IX, a survivor-led project empowering students to end sexual assault in schools, is another valuable resource. The program is offered by Washington, D.C. nonprofit Advocates for Youth. Charlotte Stone, a 17-year-old student at Washtenaw International High School and a member of Know Your IX, says her work with the project involves advocating for federal policy, supporting student organizing, and providing resources for students related to Title IX, the law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools funded by the federal government.

"It’s important to focus on the students, so not getting police or parents involved without the student’s consent," Stone says. "With minors, [it's about] making sure that the investigation is aligning with what the student wants, and making sure that the student gets all the supportive measures that they might need."

Examples of supportive measures are counseling for the students, mental health support, and moving their classes or class schedules, if the perpetrator was in one of their classes. 

Emma’s parents were lifesavers in her situation. They took charge of the issue and made sure the school handled it the best they could. When asked what she thinks would help decrease the number of sexual assault cases in schools, Emma is clear.

“I feel like they should be teaching consent education more. They kinda talked about it in health class, which is good," she says. "But it needs to be more in depth and widespread. It needs to be common knowledge.”

Vaishnavi Attili is a rising senior in high school with a deep commitment to social justice and equity. She truly believes in standing up and advocating for issues she believes in, and thinks that journalism is an extremely powerful way of doing that. She hopes to pursue a future in medicine and anthropology in college.

Tova Weiss is a primarily homeschooled high school sophomore in Ann Arbor. Her interests include but are not limited to music, writing, and advocacy on a wide array of issues.

Concentrate staffer Jaishree Drepaul served as Vaishnavi and Tova's mentor on this project.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here.
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