By COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING — As the nation deals with widespread sexual assault reports, Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, has introduced a bill that would require schools to teach affirmative consent in sexual education classes.
The bill, referred to as the “Yes Means Yes” bill, would ensure schools teach what a healthy dating relationship looks like, the setting of personal boundaries and the underlying elements of consent.
“As the father of three sons, I think it’s really important that young men know that consent is something that’s ongoing,” Cochran said. “It’s not something that is given. It’s not because you’re dating someone that implies consent.”
Cochran and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, have tried for several years to improve sexual education and understanding of consent.
In 2015, Hertel and Cochran introduced bills pertaining to affirmative consent, but it didn’t gain any traction.
But they didn’t give up on improving how consent is taught in Michigan. Hertel introduced another consent bill last year that is still pending in the Senate Education Committee.
“Given the recent upsurge in campus sexual assault cases, it’s clear that our current statute simply doesn’t put enough emphasis on what consent means,” Hertel said. “Teaching our kids about affirmative consent is a great first step in the fight against the epidemic of sexual assault.”
Cochran’s most recent bill focuses less on saying “no” and more on recognizing consent.
“It’s important because we’ve taught that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ but we need to shift from that. Currently, this teaching doesn’t seem to be working,” he said.
“Young women — college-aged — are four times more likely than any other group to face sexual assault. We need to be talking about affirmative sexual consent and what a healthy relationship looks like,” he said.
Kathy Hagenian, the executive policy director of Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence based in Okemos, agrees that schools should go beyond just teaching “no” means “no.”
“We need to teach that healthy relationships, by definition, require respect, understanding boundaries and obtaining consent,” she said. “Educating teens about consent and open communication in regards to physical intimacy in relationships does not promote sexual activity — in fact, research and experience shows the opposite is true.”
Co-sponsors include Rep. Scott Diandra, D-Calumet.
The bill would amend the sexual education curriculum by mandating that school districts focus less on the saying “no” approach and more on recognizing what consent is. It would also promote student understanding of how to set limits and how to recognize a dangerous situation while providing instruction on respectful dating relationships and setting personal boundaries.
Cochran said, “We need to be talking about consent. It needs to be comprehensive. It needs to be a subject that can be linked to the conversation. We are making some headway, but the reality is people are having sexual relationships and they need to be taught.”
He said, “And they need to be taught in their K-12 education before they get on these college campuses.”
Cochran said the bill doesn’t specify what grades should teach consent and sexual education. That would be up to individual school districts.
“Certainly, 5th grade, that’s much too young to learn about sexual education,” Cochran said. “But young people are having relationships in middle school and, certainly, in high school. It helps them to understand what the idea is behind domestic and dating violence.”
With recent well-publicized sexual assault cases in Michigan — most prominently at Michigan State University — David Crim, communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association, said the union is deeply concerned for the safety of the students, both in K-12 and at colleges and universities.
The MEA will continue to advocate and support measures to help ensure their safety, Crim said.
“Given the terrible crimes committed by (former sports Dr.) Larry Nassar at MSU, as well as other sexual assaults in schools,” Crim said, “we need to take these situations seriously.”
Cochran’s bill is awaiting action in the House Education Reform Committee.