‘Consent’ Bill Needs Our Support – Legislative post by UEA Policy Ambassador Sarah Nichols

Legislative report submitted by UEA Policy Ambassador Sarah Nichols, resource teacher at Highland High School in Salt Lake City School District

This session, I am following the bills that are presented in the House Education Committee. It’s very accessible since, because of COVID, all meetings are recorded on Zoom and can be accessed through the legislature’s website. People who want to share their thoughts don’t have to take the day off and go up to the Capitol — they just log onto their computer and join in.

On Feb. 17, the committee considered House Bill 177, a bill supported by UEA and simply titled “Health Education Amendments.” For something that sounds so innocuous, this bill has been hotly debated in communities throughout Utah. The bill would not change health class standards, but it would require schools to adopt curriculum that includes the teaching of consent. The concepts would be introduced in middle school and reinforced in high school. While refusal skills are already part of the curriculum, this would have teachers proactively teach boundaries, how to recognize signs of coercion, grooming, emotional manipulation and what consent looks like and sounds like. These lessons would require an “opt in” by parents, just like current sex education lessons.

In the meeting, some spoke in opposition to the bill. Individuals and representatives from conservative values groups like the Worldwide Organization for Women expressed concerns that the bill might undermine abstinence-only education, take away sovereignty from parents, and that it might have been unduly influenced by wording from Planned Parenthood.

Many speakers from the community came out to show support for the bill, either in person or over Zoom. They told of their own harrowing experiences and how this bill could have helped them or their loved ones. Nicole Bedera shared her own research on consent cues in young men, in which she found that young men attributed consent to platonic interactions with women, including eye contact, dancing or engaging in conversation. Because young people do not understand what actually constitutes consent (a clear ‘yes’), they are left to use their limited experiences to make uninformed guesses on consent. Unfortunately, a wrong guess can mean a lifetime of trauma for another person.

As a teacher, a mom and a survivor myself, I was moved to see so many people speak up about their experiences. I was impressed by how seriously our lawmakers are taking the need for this addition to our curriculum. Too many students lack the vocabulary and skills to navigate complex social situations, especially as they are entering the world of intimacy and sexuality. I have had to explain to high school girls that they aren’t being annoying or rude when they report unwanted touching or when they tell someone to stop. Students need permission to forget politeness and to say ‘no’ (even if it doesn’t seem “nice”) when they are in uncomfortable situations with peers or adults. On the flip side, they need to know that prolonged, personal communication and physical interaction should only occur if they have given and received consent.

The “Health Education Amendments” bill barely passed out of committee by a vote of 6 to 5. If this bill is to become a law, it will need more support. So now it’s your turn. Go to le.utah.gov and find the email addresses or phone numbers of your state lawmakers. Tell them your stories and tell them to vote ‘YES’ on HB177.