Harrisonburg High School (copy)

Harrisonburg High School is among the Virginia schools teaching consent. 

The Virginia Senate passed legislation Jan. 23 that requires high schools in Virginia to teach the topic of consent and how it can be included in the state’s existing family life education program.

Before SB 101 was passed, many high schools in Virginia already taught the topic of consent as part of the family life education curriculum. Now, the instruction of consent is mandatory for all school divisions to incorporate into the existing programs.

“I think it’s so important because there’s not a day in the recent past on the news or in social media where we don’t hear about accusations of sexual violence or exploitation,” Maria Simonetti, executive director of the Collins Center, said.

The Collins Center is an organization in Harrisonburg that helps victims of sexual assault and violence. The center provides prevention and education programs to end sexual violence, as well as mental health counseling for the community. They have a 24-hour sexual assault crisis hotline, which can be reached at 540-434-2272.

SB 101 will only require the topic of consent to be taught at the high school level, but Simonetti believes it’s never too early for individuals to be aware of the importance of consent.

“I wish they were starting earlier,” Simonetti said. “High school can be late because young people develop their beliefs around these issues earlier, around middle school. It’s important that schools are able to provide age-appropriate, accurate information to help young people understand assault.”

While this bill may provide changes in the family life education program for areas throughout Virginia, it doesn’t change any of the policies regarding consent adopted by Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

“Regardless of whether it was a bill or not a bill, our school systems had the option of having that in the curriculum,” Scott Kizner, superintendent of HCPS, said. “We have been putting that as part of our family life education program for the last few years.”

HCPS currently has a partnership with JMU’s Office on Children and Youth, which delivers part of the family life education program presented at the high school level. 

“The more we’re open and honest and give our students information, the better they’re in a position to make the right decisions,” Kizner said.

Last year, a similar bill involving consent being taught in high school was almost passed in the Virginia Senate. Kara Pyles, director of programs and development at New Directions Centers, attended its lobbying in the Senate, but it didn’t come to fruition.

“I think with the recent allegations of sexual assault, consent is becoming more of a part of the situation now,” Pyles said. “People are educating themselves more about it.”

New Directions Center is a local nonprofit that works to reduce the impact of sexual and domestic violence. The center provides counseling and court advocacy for those in Augusta, Rockingham and Waynesboro counties.

 “I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about consent and how it should be taught,” Pyles said.

 One of the arguments against consent being taught at the high school level is that the majority of students in high school can’t legally consent due to being under the age of 18. The topic of consent is also not universally recognized, as “half of college students do not know the definition of consent and the potential ramifications of not receiving consent,” according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

 “People are aware that college is a time where people need to know about consent before their first class,” Pyles said. “I think that’s why it’s so important for students to be taught about this before they go to college and before they’re 18.”

Comprehensive sexual education, involving the topic of consent, hasn’t been adopted nationwide, but Virginia is attempting to set the standard for the topic of consent to be taught in a way that best prepares students for the future.

 “We know that sexual assault on college campus is pervasive for people ages 18-24 have the risk of being victims of sexual assault,” Pyles said. “The first few months of college for freshmen is the highest time for risk.”

Now that SB 101 has been passed and the teaching of consent as part of the family life education programs around the state, there’s hope for some that this is a topic that becomes more approachable and familiar in the learning environment.

“Even just a year ago I’m not sure people were familiar or comfortable with the topic,” Pyles said. “I thinks it’s an important step for the government and society as a whole to recognize officially that this is something that happens and is something we can prevent.”

Contact Matthew Sasser at sasserma@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Matthew Sasser is a sophomore writing, rhetoric, and technical communication major. Beyond writing, he enjoys skateboarding, playing bass guitar, ultimate frisbee and is an avid Taco Bell enthusiast.