In a growing number of metro Atlanta classrooms, as the world outside grapples with high-profile sexual assault allegations and the ramifications, students are hearing more about consent.
The sharper focus comes amid the #MeToo movement, as accusations have piled up against powerful men in business, media, entertainment and government— including most recently Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The conversation has spilled over into schools, where sex education ignites fierce debates over values, religion and what should be taught in class versus what is best broached at home.
In Georgia, state rules require sex ed to emphasize abstinence until marriage. Yet more detailed discussions about what it means to agree freely to sexual activity are becoming more common, though some fear such talk might make teens think it’s OK to have sex.
“We decided … several weeks ago that consent was something that we needed to talk about because of conversations that those teachers were having in the classroom,” said Paul Scott, health and physical education coordinator for Clayton County Public Schools. “It’s more relevant to the students, I think, because it’s in the news. They hear those things, and they are having those conversations.”
A new state law requires districts to educate kindergarten through ninth-grade students about sexual abuse and prevention.
And, the Atlanta-based publisher of a popular abstinence-centered curriculum used by more than 30 Georgia school districts is about to roll out an expanded lesson with more specifics about what does and does not constitute sexual consent.
The state gives school districts plenty of leeway in how to teach sex ed. Like most states, Georgia’s learning standards do not specifically use the word “consent.”
Some advocates want schools to teach more about consent, saying it’s a critical concept that schools uniquely are positioned to address.
“These kids are confused,” said Jaime Winfree, a parent of two Gwinnett students and director of Gwinnett Citizens for Comprehensive Sex Education. “I have to sit down and have Brett Kavanaugh conversations with my 11-year-old. They are going to see this stuff, so do we let them interpret it on their own? Or do we help them understand.”
Others are receptive to consent being taught in an abstinence-centered curriculum but are wary of the way it may be framed and of politics pushing into the classroom.
“This whole area is just rife for indoctrination on one side or another, which is one reason why the bulk of this ought to be done in families rather than in school,” said Jane Robbins, an Atlanta attorney and senior fellow at the conservative American Principles Project. “I think it depends on how you are approaching it.”
She opposes starting from an “affirmative standpoint” that includes negotiating sexual activity and “getting to yes.”
“That attitude is problematic, that consent alone or consent coupled with contraception is … healthy behaviour,” she said. “We know that the healthiest behavior for teenagers is abstinence.”
Abstinence is at the core of the “Choosing the Best” curriculum used by seven of the state’s 10 largest school districts, including Fulton, Gwinnett and Clayton. An expanded lesson will be available to schools next month that provides more detail about consent. According to three pages the publisher provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it uses fill-in-the-blank exercises and includes statements for teachers to read.
For example: “Consent is clear (not uncertain), coherent (not compromised by drinking or drugs), willing (agreeable to what’s happening), mutual (both parties feel the same way), and ongoing (consent from yesterday does not mean consent today. Consent has to be present each time an activity is considered.)”
The age of consent in Georgia is 16, and the lesson stresses that those younger cannot legally consent to sexual activity.
Marcia Papst, a spokeswoman for Choosing the Best Publishing, said in an email that the curriculum already covers consent in the context of preventing sexual violence, stresses that assault is never the victim’s fault and teaches students that “both males and females can be victims of sexual violence if sexual activities occur without mutual consent.”
The company added new material because “students could benefit from a greater understanding” of the topic, she said.
Winfree’s group has tried unsuccessfully to get Gwinnett to drop the abstinence-centered program. She said its inadequate discussion of consent is just one of her many concerns. “All the onus is put on the girls. It is her job to protect her virginity from those boys,” Winfree said.
Gwinnett spokesman Bernard Watson said the district hasn’t reviewed the new Choosing the Best lesson but said the curriculum already addresses consent and coercion. It includes setting boundaries, resisting “persuasive tactics” and explaining sexual assault.
The Fulton school board will vote Thursday on expanding sex-education materials to include a 34-minute video teachers could show to high schoolers that defines consent and sexual assault.
In the video, a young woman looks directly at the camera and minces no words: “At the heart of consent is the idea that we all have the right to clearly say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any sexual encounter.”
She and other sexual assault survivors share their stories alongside experts explaining what consent means.
“It’s like expressed permission that what’s happening right now is equally cool with the both of us,” says a psychologist featured in the video.
It tells students they can’t assume someone has agreed to sexual activity based on how they look, their body language or previous sexual activity or if they are silent, immobile or incapacitated.
Fulton’s health education advisory committee approved adding the video in February. Many who reviewed it and provided anonymous feedback praised it, though one comment suggested parents should be notified first “so they can have conversations at home.” Others credited its “helpful and practical tips” and said students “need this information before they get to college.”
Clayton schools are placing more emphasis on consent, and not just in terms of sexual activity. Scott said students are taught how to set personal boundaries and avoid peer pressure.
He acknowledged there can be “a little bit of push and pull” by urging consent while also promoting abstinence.
“I have teachers who are uncomfortable with teaching it, of course they are,” he said. “I don’t want to do a disservice to students by just teaching abstinence and not teaching real-world application.”
Atlanta and DeKalb school districts use a sex-ed curriculum that’s broader in scope than abstinence-centered programs. An Atlanta spokesman pointed to a segment that stresses the responsibility “to verify that all sexual contact is consensual.” Students also learn that consent is necessary before engaging in a sexual activity even if they are married or dating.
The Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential trains teachers to provide comprehensive sex education that includes the topic of consent. Even among school districts doing that, there’s been more discussion about sexual violence, said Shelley Francis Travis, vice president of programs.
Part of that is due to the state law passed this year that mandates lessons and instructor training on sexual abuse prevention.
School districts should be selecting materials now to meet the new requirement of Senate Bill 401, said Therese McGuire, program specialist in health and physical education for the Georgia Department of Education. Some may determine they are already in compliance.
But even before the new law, Francis Travis said the discussion around preventing sexual violence had amplified: “Every single day in the news, there’s a story about it.”
She said: “Young people need to know that they have a right to say what happens to their bodies, that they have a right to determine what they do and set boundaries.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.