Schools should prioritize teaching youth about sexual consent

Denver area teens are back in the classroom. Administrators at Denver metro schools are working hard to keep our youth safe from the Delta variant of COVID, but they are harming them in another way: by failing to give them consistent consent and sexual assault prevention education. Educators, parents, and community leaders must prioritize teaching youth about sexual consent. 

Megan Carvajal

Age-appropriate consent education supports healthy emotional development and teaches young people to set and respect boundaries. Yet this common-sense, evidence-based approach to preventing sexual violence is not treated as a priority. This must change. 

The Department of Justice suggests that an American is assaulted every 68 seconds and unfortunately, during the pandemic, we also saw rates of intimate partner violence increase

Since the start of 2021, crime reports in the city and county of Denver indicate that on average, nearly 2 people are sexually assaulted per day. Since many assaults go unreported, the real number is likely much higher.

At The Blue Bench, requests from sexual assault survivors for therapy and case management services have increased exponentially in 2021, compared to 2020, resulting in a 4-week wait time for some services.

These facts point to one conclusion: it is time we talk with young people about consent. Here is what is at risk if we don’t act.

According to the most recent Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, nearly 7% of teen respondents report that they were physically forced to have sexual intercourse. Nationally, females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than other groups to experience a sexual assault. Estimates also suggest 1 in 3 Coloradans experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime; 80% will take place before 25 years of age.  

These alarming statistics represent lives turned upside down by the trauma of sexual violence. A Department of Justice report on the impact of violent crime found that approximately 70% of sexual assault survivors experience moderate to severe distress, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. School and work performance often suffers as a result, and drug use among survivors is too common.

With consent education, this is preventable.

Consent education teaches young people what qualifies as consent.  Consent is not the absence of “no;” rather, it is the presence of an enthusiastic, uncoerced “yes.” It also teaches young people to recognize sexually inappropriate and violent behaviors, while promoting healthy, respectful relationships among young people that are in line with their own values and that empower them to communicate these values. 

This approach is effective. Post-program evaluations of high school students who have participated in The Blue Bench’s prevention education programming indicate a statistically significant change in knowledge and attitudes, compared to pre-program evaluations. 

We also know students want this information. At the start of the 2020-21 academic year, students at Denver’s East High School protested to demand more sexual-assault prevention education, including information about consent and healthy relationships. 

It’s time for adults to listen. 

In Colorado, state statute mandates that information about consent be included if the school teaches comprehensive sexual education. In the absence of sex ed, a school might include it as part of another class. As students and teachers deal with the fall-out from the pandemic, consent education is often being pushed to the wayside.

We recognize COVID has created an educational gap that teachers are struggling to fill. However, teaching sexual consent is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Waiting until the end of the pandemic to address consent education will mean that thousands of youth will continue to go without these crucial lessons.

This school year, The Blue Bench is asking stakeholders to reprioritize sexual consent education. We are here to help. We want to be a guide and rally support from the greater Denver community. This is why we are asking parents and parent and teacher associations to demand change. We also ask teachers, superintendents, and School Boards, to join the conversation. 

Sexual violence adversely impacts the entire community. Now is the time to take action.

Megan Carvajal, of Longmont, is executive director of The Blue Bench, a sexual assault prevention and survivor support center. Twitter: @megan_carvajal

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