State Approaches to Teach Consent in Health Education Classrooms


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Last year, Education Commission of the States released a blog post for Denim Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month highlighting state action related to affirmative consent policies for higher education  institutions.

This year, ECS examined state K-12 sex education policies and health education standards related to instruction about consent. Health education has gained a renewed focus in recent months as states deliberate approaches to curriculum across content and grade levels.

Data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey found that approximately 7% of high school students surveyed reported being physically forced into sexual intercourse. High school female respondents were over three times more likely than their male counterparts to respond “yes” to this question. Likewise, nearly 11% of total respondents experienced sexual violence within the previous 12 months, and female respondents were three times more likely to answer “yes.” Overall, 16% of female respondents reported forced sexual violence and 11% reported being forced into sexual intercourse. These statistics demonstrate the prevalence of nonconsensual sexual contact that high school females experience.

A 2020 analysis of state sex education policies by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 30 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. A 2019 article from The 74 noted that nine states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in schools and also require students to receive instruction related to consent. Similarly, a 2019 article from the Center for American Progress detailed that 11 states and the District of Columbia include the terms healthy relationships, sexual assault or consent within state law or state education standards.

States have taken various approaches to how consent is defined and taught in a health education setting. The following state examples highlight strategies that states have used to codify the instruction of consent within policy and health education standards:

Maryland includes consent as part of its Comprehensive Health Education Framework for students in grades PreK-12. Discussion of consent in PreK-2 focuses on personal boundaries and bodily autonomy, grades 3-5 defines consent and details the relationship between consent, personal boundaries and bodily autonomy. Grades 6-12 places consent within the context of sexual contact and sexual relationships.

New Jersey enacted A 2190 in 2019, which requires consent to be included in an update of the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education standards and requires local education agencies to teach the concept to students in grades 6-12. The standards stipulate that instruction should focus on the “awareness that consent is required before physical contact or sexual activity.”

Oregon includes consent as part of its Health Education Standards. Similar to Vermont, Oregon includes discussion of consent with younger grades, beginning with kindergarten. Consent for grades K-5 is placed within the context of personal boundaries while it is placed within a sexual context for students in grades 6-12.

The Vermont Agency of Education explained that the National Sex Education Standards developed by the Future of Sex Education “assists schools in designing and delivering sexuality education that is planned, sequential and part of a comprehensive school health education approach.” 16 V.S.A. § 131 includes concepts related to the prevention of sexual abuse and sexual violence and developmentally appropriate education about promoting healthy relationships.

The state of Washington enacted S.B. 5395 in 2020, which requires public schools to provide instruction to students related to affirmative consent. The state also includes consent as part of the Health Education Learning Standards for students in grades 8-12. Washington’s standards for students in grades 8-12 include how consent can be communicated and adds a component about factors that can affect the ability to give or accept consent for students in grades 9-12.

As states assess curriculum, policymakers may want to consider including optional or mandatory instruction on consent in sex and health education to help adolescents and young adults understand the factors that contribute to consent along with providing a framework that empowers students to give and withdraw consent in personal and sexual settings.

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Carlos Jamieson is a former policy researcher at Education Commission of the States.

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