Missouri Senate hears bill on K-12 sex ed curriculum expansion

There are three bills in the current legislative session that would expand sexual education curriculum to include consent, sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The Missouri Senate held a hearing Tuesday night for Senate Bill 788, one of three bills making the rounds in Missouri legislature that would require high schools that opt to teach sexual education to include language on sexual assault, sexual violence and consent in their curriculum. The hearing included testimonies from community members, including high school students.

House bills 2234 and 2285 were introduced in late January, and Sen. Jamilah Nasheed introduced an identical senate bill, SB 778, on Feb. 15. All three bills contain the exact same language and exist in tandem to increase the likelihood of one getting through.

After their initial hearings, the three bills currently still need their respective committee votes to progress in the session.

Missouri public schools currently are not required by law to teach sexual education, although school boards can decide to include it in the curriculum. Any finalized bill would not require all schools to teach these topics, but instead expand the statute of what needs to be covered for schools who have opted for sex education.

“High school-age folks are starting to consider dating,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “It’s usually also when they’re getting their first jobs, so this is covering a variety of things that people for the first time are going to be experiencing. It’s been shown effective that we want to be giving information to folks at multiple points as they are developing.”

The bills define consent as “a freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person.” It also specifies that “[a] lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating or social or sexual relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.”

Dochler said the recent widespread understanding of “yes means yes” and “no means no” presents problems: Sometimes a person is not able to physically say no. There is also a general misunderstanding that consent needs to be granted only once, when it is actually needed every time. These problems could be addressed by the bill’s specific language about consent, Dochler said.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about what our legal definition of consent is,” Dochler said. “It’s important that people do have a very comprehensive understanding about what it means to gain consent, and what does it mean if I haven’t clearly given consent.”

Brittani Fults, education, prevention and outreach coordinator in the Office for Civil Rights & Title IX, said she currently sees most teenagers learning about consent and sexual harassment through social media and social interactions. She thinks having discussions about consent and sexual harassment in school would help people feel more comfortable navigating college.

“I think that will lead to healthier interpersonal relationships,” Fults said. “I see it come up a lot of people saying, ‘Well what if this happened and this happened?’ And it’s like, if we would have just had this conversation when you were in fourth grade, you wouldn’t have to be worried about what is and isn’t OK because you would have already had years of experience learning that and exploring that.”

While the Office for Civil Rights & Title IX’s annual report for 2016-17 has not yet been compiled, the 2015-16 report shows, among students, 142 reported cases of sexual misconduct, 68 cases of sexual harassment, 47 cases of intimate partner violence and 39 cases of sex/gender discrimination or harassment. Including a few other categories, students were accused of 423 total reported sex discrimination violations.

Given that these instances are only what students decided to report and not the actual number of instances, Fults said she thinks more people will report situations if they feel openness about the topic and feel comfortable discussing it with the Title IX office.

“I think having that conversation very early in a healthy, age-appropriate, controlled setting is beneficial for students because they’re not going to be afraid to approach it when they get to college,” Fults said. “They’re not going to be afraid to notice something’s not right or feeling like ‘I have some control and agency in the decisions I make and the people around me support that.”

She said it is important that if any legislation is passed, communities work to adapt the curriculum so that it is not cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all. She encourages people creating and implementing the curriculum to evaluate its diversity and ensure different needs of students in different areas of Missouri are considered when implementing it.

“Who’s making [the curriculums]?” Fults said. “Who are they really for? Who’s teaching them that’s also going to account for cultural barriers that may be different in a rural school and an urban school or a suburban school or if you’re coming from an area that’s low income.”

The next House hearing for HB 2234 is set to take place Feb. 27 at 5 p.m in House Hearing Room 7.

Edited by Skyler Rossi | srossi@themaneater.com

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