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Lydia Maciel never learned the definitions of consent or sexual violence as a student at Western International High School in southwest Detroit.
Nor did many of the more than 100 students she and a group of her peers surveyed in the Detroit school district during their time as the inaugural fellowship class of Girls Making Change in 2016.
The high school juniors and seniors, all girls and young women of color from Detroit tasked with finding a project to address social issues in their community, found that many of the kids they talked to also didn’t know where they could find help or resources for sexual assault survivors.
So, the group pushed for legislation that would require public schools to provide definitions of sexual violence and consent, as well as resources to help survivors — information that advocates say can be life-saving. It took five years, but their idea, born out of personal and peer experience, will soon become a reality when a new law goes into effect next school year.
Such early conversations about consent that destigmatize shame for survivors may help prevent violence, researchers say.
“We were shocked that a majority of students didn’t know what consent was or what it looked like,” said Maciel, now 25 and a graduate of Wayne State University.
As a survivor of sexual assault herself, Maciel wanted better for students who will go through the Michigan public education system after her.
Senate Bill 66, approved by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on July 11, will require all public school districts and charter schools as well as intermediate school districts to provide age-appropriate material explaining what constitutes sexual assault and harassment to sixth through 12th graders. The material must also include explanations of consent — defined as an agreement to participate in sexual activities — and let students know that sexual violence is not the victim’s fault. The information must also list resources available to survivors and the actions they can take.
The Michigan Department of Education has until June 1, 2024 to develop the material in consultation with experts and advocates, including the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board and the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.
School systems can decide how to distribute the information. It must include contact information for the district’s Title IX coordinator and its policies on sexual harassment and assault, including the fact that retaliation and harassment against those who disclose abuse is prohibited.
The information must remain accessible to middle and high school students and their parents in student handbooks and district websites.
Beginning in the 2024-25 school year, school systems will be encouraged to train all educators and staff who come into contact with students on how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence. The training, which would take place at least every five years, would be provided as professional development through nonprofits that receive funding from the state’s domestic and sexual violence prevention and treatment board or the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Education can help prevent violence, experts say
Maciel said many students who answered the group’s survey said they had experienced sexual violence or had friends who did and did not know where to find help.
Others described situations that constituted sexual assault and did not have an understanding that the interactions were not consensual, she said.
“These girls didn’t want these things to happen to them, but they didn’t know it was assault,” said Maciel.
More recently, numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior survey suggest an uptick in cases of abuse of high school girls. In 2019, an estimated 850,000 girls in high school reported being raped. In 2021, that number jumped to more than 1 million.
Research also indicates such estimates are often likely undercounts, especially when based on criminal reports.
Such abuse can have negative mental and physical health impacts on survivors, including causing poor educational outcomes.
While many researchers and advocates say educating kids in K-12 about consent may prevent sexual violence, experts say more research is needed to determine its effectiveness because few public school districts in the nation provide such lessons as part of a comprehensive sex education curriculum.
By 2019, the 74 reported, 24 states had mandated sex education in schools. Of those, nine required curricula include the concept of communicating sexual consent.
Amanda Barratt, senior program director at the Michigan Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, said the impact of conversations around sexual violence that foster an understanding of consent should never be underestimated.
“If we are having these conversations that dismantle the shame of survivors and shifts it to the people causing harm, that absolutely changes how people are going to hold others accountable and that is what helps prevent violence,” she said.
Many advocates say talking to kids as early as possible in age-appropriate language about consent sets the foundation for deeper conversations about sex in middle and high school.
“That actually builds something much more longstanding and can last an entire lifetime,” said Barratt.
‘Consent isn’t really talked about’
Juanita Zuniga, also part of the Girls Making Change group and now a 24-year-old graduate of Detroit Cristo Rey High School and Kalamazoo College, said the sex education she received in private Catholic high school was similar to what she heard Detroit public school students describe learning in class.
“Consent isn’t really talked about,” she said. “It’s more ‘don’t have sex and you won’t have a baby and nothing bad will happen to you.’”
That type of language without the context of assault and rape not being the fault of victims can be harmful, said Zuniga.
“That type of rhetoric does perpetuate guilt, especially when you’re young and so impressionable,” she said. “It contributes to youth not wanting to speak up about abuse and being silenced.”
Barb Flis, founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids, a Michigan nonprofit that aims to teach youth about sexual health, said the state’s existing laws do not allow for universal comprehensive sex education. Additionally, parents may opt their children out of all sex education.
“The best practice in an ideal world would be teaching early and often in a comprehensive way,” she said. “I think this is a good step in the right direction. But, we have to understand that handing out a brochure or providing information is not going to take care of the whole issue.”
Law took five years to become reality
State Sen. Stephanie Chang, who introduced the legislation, said it was strategically written to reach as many students as possible. Requiring districts to provide the information to all kids enrolled in grades 6 through 12 will mean the information will be received by more middle and high schoolers than if it were only included in sex education curriculum.
“This actually is an opportunity to reach all students, which is very powerful,” said Barratt.
Chang, who created the Girls Making Change program as a newly elected state house representative, first introduced the legislation in 2018 after around 500 women and girls came forward to say they were sexually abused by Michigan State University team physician and Olympic trainer Larry Nassar.
“I think for us, it’s really about how do we effectively make an impact for kids and prevent future sexual assault,” said Chang. “It’s very clear that it has to start with education.”
The new law was introduced as part of a bipartisan package each legislative term beginning in 2018.
Maciel is grateful the bill will now become law, but said it’s hard for her to understand why it took five years to pass.
“I want this to open eyes for politicians here in Michigan to see how long this took,” she said. “It could have been helping students the moment it was introduced. It should have been passed and we shouldn’t have waited this long.”
Hannah Dellinger is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 education. Contact Hannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.