Are schools teaching students enough about sexual consent?
A growing national #MeToo movement and furor over the controversial confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after an accusation of sexual assault in high school have sparked questions about whether schools teach students enough about sexual consent.
Kavanaugh's case -- in which he denied the allegation by Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school -- hits close to home for many teens. Some say adults shouldn't be quick to dismiss youthful indiscretions, that schools need to teach what constitutes sexual consent, and that there should be harsher consequences for those who commit sexual offenses.
"As I was watching the (Senate) hearings, one defense of the candidate I heard many times, both on social media and from elected representatives, is that it was OK because the alleged assaults took place in high school," said Jackson Teetor, 17, a senior at Larkin High School in Elgin. "As a high schooler, I find it horrifying that anyone could be so quick to dismiss any act like this because the perpetrator was in high school. I want to be held accountable for my actions and I want my peers to be held accountable."
Teetor, student adviser to the Elgin Area School District U-46 school board, challenged officials at the state's second-largest school district to make it clear sexual violence will not be tolerated and to raise more awareness about consent.
"In my entire high school career, my school has not had any mandatory education on consent, appropriate conduct, or how to report inappropriate incidents," he said. "All of my education has been from outside sources: parents, books, videos online. There is really no centralized curriculum on what we should be teaching ... so we don't all agree on what is and what isn't consent."
According to The Center for American Progress, 24 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in public schools. Ten states and the District of Columbia require sexual consent to be taught as part of sex education classes -- state laws and education standards mention "healthy relationships," "sexual assault," or "consent" in sex education programs, the center reported.
In August, Illinois became the latest to require education about sexual consent -- parties agree to engage in sexual activity. Students in sixth through 12th grades now must be taught about sexual harassment in the workplace and on college campuses, and how to identify sexual harassment or sexual assault at work or at school as part of the curriculum. Previous instruction focused on teaching students about not making or how to reject unwanted sexual advances, usually left to the teachers' discretion.
The #MeToo movement and cases like Kavanaugh accentuate the need for schools to have more conversations about how to prevent sexual assaults, says Brenda Nelson, health and wellness coordinator at Libertyville High School.
"There is definitely a lot more conversation and awareness than there has been in the past," said Nelson, who has been working on mental health issues in schools for 17 years.
Last spring, the school launched the Green Dot program aimed at empowering members of the school community to intervene in situations of interpersonal violence.
"It provides a schoolwide approach to really changing the culture around those three areas of interpersonal violence: bullying, dating violence and sexual assault," Nelson said.
Roughly 95 percent of the school's adults have received training through the program. By December, Nelson expects about 150 of the school's nearly 2,000 students who are "influencers" in their social spheres also will be trained.
More victim support
Milka Cassandra Deinla, 17, of Schaumburg, a junior at St. Edward Central Catholic High School in Elgin, said most students her age don't have an understanding of what constitutes consent.
"They understand rape, but they don't understand what leads up to it," she said. "I think schools need to teach that more than anything."
Deinla said the #MeToo movement has instilled confidence in students to speak up. Yet, sexual assault victims need to feel safe coming forward to report assaults and receive support from school counselors, she added.
Teetor advocates an anonymous tip line for reporting sexual assaults -- something U-46 officials might consider along with reviewing policies and curriculum on sex education.
West Aurora High School senior Bianca Gomez, 17, calls for harsher punishment for perpetrators and more support for victims.
Gomez referenced the 2016 conviction of Brock Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, as an example of inadequate penalties. Turner was convicted on three felony charges of sexual assault stemming from the January 2015 assault of a 22-year-old woman after she had blacked out from drinking at a campus party. Turner was 19 at the time.
"People have gotten off with barely any punishment," Gomez said.
Gomez is a member of the school's Above the Influence club, which encourages students to be above the influence of drinking and drugs. She said similar support groups are needed for victims of sexual assault "to get more support rather than hate."