After Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León established the ‘Yes Means Yes’ affirmative consent law at the college level last year, his natural next step was to expand the concept to California high schools. The democratic leader of the state’s 24th district implemented Senate Bill 695 at the beginning of the year, which states all high schools that require a health course for graduation must teach sexual assault and violence prevention.
“[de León] feels a really strong connection with the issue in terms of assault and women, and feels a strong sense that men need to step up and have this conversation,” de León’s Senior Education Consultant Kimberly Rodriguez said. “It shouldn’t just be a women’s issue. It should really be both genders embracing it.”
The original bill and the high school adaptation that followed were spurred by de León’s concern for his then college-aged daughter. The bill, which was supported by nine organizations, specifies classes must teach different forms of sexual harassment and violence, prevention strategies, ways to report cases and resources for victims.
Rodriguez said though not all schools have health courses, the three largest districts in the state, of which Los Angeles Unified is the first, do require the class for graduation. She said long term, de León hopes the bill will establish healthy relationships and help inform students about the law’s existence.
In hopes of beginning this education earlier, Legislative Women’s Caucus Chair Hannah-Beth Jackson, who worked alongside de León in implementing bill 695, is working on a new law. Bill 1435 proposes relationship courses begin in middle schools. Rodriguez said she believes this age is not too early to instill respectful and healthy relationships as it will help to prepare students for their interactions in high school, college and beyond.
“You should [know] how to deal with your peers and how to treat each others before you get [to high school],” Rodriguez said.
Michael Wagner, Monrovia High School’s Health and Wellness teacher for the past 12 years, said he has been teaching these values for as long as he has been an educator. He said he instills in his students that no matter what decisions they make, they have to care about other people.
“I hope [other educators] understand there are certain things that need to be covered, whether you’re uncomfortable with them or not, and we need to leave our private agendas at home and try to teach,” Wagner said.
Wagner said he believes the new bill will be beneficial because it will universalize the curriculum in all high schools.
“It’s not going to be based on the homophobic teacher that doesn’t want to talk about gender issues, or it’s not going to be based on the person who is pushing gay agenda,” he said. “The playing field is going to be level.”
He said while the implementation may take up to a year to reach its full effect, the law will quickly stir important discussions in district offices. He said for years, there were never clear specifications of what to teach beside a basic outline, which left the standards up to teachers’ interpretations. He said the new law should enforce the importance of sharing all information with students regardless of a teacher’s comfort level.
“Math teachers aren’t going to leave something out if they are not good at it, and I think that’s what we’ve seen in health for years,” Wagner said.
Wagner said Monrovia High anticipates eliminating the health requirement in the future as many other schools have done. If that happens, he said he will incorporate the information he teaches in his health class in biology or physical education.
Azusa High School stopped requiring a health course for graduation several years ago. The school’s health clerk, Rose Araiza, said students have turned to her with sexual education questions since then. She said she believes bringing back the class would be beneficial to teach students about abuse sexually, mentally and physically.
“Health would cover all of that,” Araiza said. “It would be an asset to the kids.”
She said she has multiple students confide problems concerning romantic and familial relationships in her and the school psychologist. She said there is a general lack of education about sex among many students, especially regarding abuse and protection.
Brittany VanDeVrugt, a Heritage High School junior, said her experience with health class was minimal. She said she was encouraged by her teachers her freshman year to take a fast track health class which she attended twice a week for a semester and then tested out of the second semester. She said she believes it would be beneficial for students to take more in-depth courses to learn about sexual harassment so they are able to identify it when they see it.
“I would tell [other students] to understand what sexual harassment is and the severity of the situation,” VanDeVrugt said. “People blow it over like it’s nothing, but it’s not always nothing.”
VanDeVrugt said she believes students often overlook the seriousness of sexual assault, but said a classroom setting would change students’ perspectives. She said in her experience, most teachers avoid having conversations about touchy sex education topics.
“It’s kind of like a ‘don’t go there’ region,” she said.
She said if she were to have questions concerning sex education, she would most likely turn to a book before a person. She said most teachers treat the topic as taboo, and she thinks they would want her to be more private about her questions than she would like to be.
Tahquitz High School senior Mady Martinez said she has been informed of the medical aspects of a sex education in anatomy class and has been told about the social aspects in psychology class, but has not had a formal health class since elementary school.
“I know right from wrong, but I was never taught,” Martinez said.
Martinez said she believes it is necessary for students her age to learn about the emotional aspects of sex education. She said Tahquitz offers assemblies about bullying, and she thinks dedicating a class period every so often for a sexual assault assembly would be beneficial.
“I think if we can cover social abuse, I don’t see why we couldn’t cover sexual abuse.”
“I think if we can cover social abuse, I don’t see why we couldn’t cover sexual abuse,” she said.
Hemet High School senior Saige Darrow said her school gave her a choice between taking health and AVID, a college preparatory class, as a freshman. She said she chose to take AVID, but she wishes she would have taken health because she now feels uninformed.
“I think there’s a lot of things that I could have learned that I did not learn,” Darrow said.
She said as she never received instruction from a health class, she would not feel comfortable approaching a teacher with questions about sex education and would prefer to talk to her parents. She said she talks with her friends about issues such as abuse and harassment occasionally, but it is not a frequent topic.
“It’s not a regular discussion,” Darrow said. “It’s talked about, but not as much as it should be.”
For confidential counseling regarding sexual assault, call 800.656.4673 or visit Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.