True or false? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that sexual violence affects students between the ages of 12 and 18 in staggering numbers.
If you answered true, you’re correct.
Equally unsettling, the National Center for Victims of Crime says approximately one-third of all perpetrators of sexual violence are juveniles.
Sexual violence of all types — in-person or online bullying, LGBTQ harassment, unwanted touching, assault and rape — negatively affects our students’ well-being and undermines their ability to thrive.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, our high school and college students are at particular risk. Its research shows that females between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. And in its studies of LGBTQ youth in secondary schools, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that 82 percent of LGBTQ youth report being bullied at school about sexual orientation.
This violence — whether it occurs in or out of school — weighs heavily on me. As a high school educator and activist advocating for equity, dignity and respect for all students, I am alarmed by the confusion in young adults’ minds about boundaries and consent. When I speak with my students and other high school-age young adults, many are clueless. Time and again, when questions of consent escalate to cases deemed newsworthy, I’m struck by what young adults believe constitutes consent. Far too often, when charges are leveled, students just don’t get it. They’re genuinely perplexed, not understanding how they ended up in trouble.
Our children and young adults deserve safe and healthy environments within their schools and within their relationships. Raising awareness and educating our young people become critical. We need to do all we can to reduce the pressures that take away students’ voice, respect and dignity.
In conversations with UFT colleagues and during school visits around the city, I found that few advisory programs, wellness initiatives or units of study give priority to discussions about consent. Consent isn’t part of the Comprehensive Education Plan for any of our high schools. Most significant, there’s no mandated curriculum.
Our classrooms include future professionals of all types. And many may someday be in a position to determine the validity of claims that consent was violated. Far too many don’t know the difference now. Will they understand that “no means no” and only “yes means yes” when they leave high school? Sadly, many may not.
We can make a difference. California this year became the first state to require all high schools to teach at least one lesson on affirmative consent and sexual violence prevention in mandatory health classes. Closer to home, social workers and educators at the Cascades Living for the Young Family through Education (LYFE) Center in Manhattan are tackling these issues and more with New York City public high school students who’ve become parents.
Zamyra Abdel-Hady, a bilingual social worker and the Cascades LYFE Center chapter leader, champions developing curriculum to address difficult and sensitive topics including healthy relationships, coercion and consent. As part of the school’s social-emotional learning and parenting development, the staff conducts weekly group and individual sessions. Abdel-Hady says students are shown they have the “right to say no and be respected and the right to self-care.”
Abdel-Hady believes that integrating this kind of instruction into classroom learning “adds a new and important dimension.” She says this work is challenging and difficult.
But our high school division wants to lead the effort to make a difference. In December, the UFT Delegate Assembly passed a resolution in support of “consent education” in the city’s middle and high schools. We vowed to urge the Department of Education to require developmentally appropriate lessons on consent, healthy sexuality and dating relationships similar to the lessons on HIV/AIDS that are taught in our schools.
Additionally, we vowed to form a partnership with the DOE on professional learning so we may serve as informed role models by contributing to respectful cultures in our schools, identifying and intervening for students at risk of participating in inappropriate conduct, and successfully supporting students who have experienced sexual violence.
The union has expanded its anti-bullying Building Respect, Acceptance and Voice through Education (BRAVE) initiative so information about consent and healthy intimate relationships is available to students and their families.
If we are to truly equip our students to become college- and career-ready, we can’t neglect this work. Students must acquire the skills and knowledge needed for problem-solving, critical thinking and respectful, healthy and safe interactions.
The opportunity is before us. The need is great. Let’s get to work.