Confronting sexual abuse, in high school

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Exercises like this one help Santa Barbara high school students discuss healthy love. Photo: What is Love

California lawmakers approved a bill this week, that would require high schools to teach students about sexual assault and healthy relationships.

The state Senate approved it Monday on a 36-0 vote, sending it to the Assembly.

Under Senate Bill 695, health courses, which are a condition of graduation for a majority of California high school students, will include instruction on affirmative consent, sexual harassment, assault, violence, and the importance of developing positive, healthy relationships.

Jointly-authored by Senators Kevin de León and Hannah Beth Jackson, the bill builds off the “Yes Means Yes” law, which brings more sexual abuse awareness and resources into colleges.

According to a report prepared by the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, 1 in 5 of all college women will be a victim of sexual assault during her college years. Local politicians like Jackson and de León believe this means sex education must go beyond “the birds and the bees” and attack more nuanced matters.

But, what would affirmative consent education look like in high school?

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What is Love students spread the word at their high school. Photo: What is Love

Capture4Some schools in Santa Barbara County are ahead of the curve. The What is Love program has been in local high and junior high schools since 2010.

Christy Haynes, the founder of the program, says she would have gotten a lot out of a program like this when she was in high school. She now shares her story with everyone who enters the door.

“I grew up in a family of violence, with a dad who was really jealous and possessive,” Christy tells a group of students. “And he hit. Watching and growing up around that, it sort of became my normal. So, when I started dating at 15 I was drawn to that same kind of person, who didn’t treat me with respect, who was jealous, who was possessive.”

Sadly, her story is not an anomaly. One in three teens in the country report experiencing physical, emotional, sexual or digital dating abuse. But, 80% of school counselors report being unprepared to address these problems. That’s where she comes in.

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Christy has facilitated more than 25 6-week workshops, and is currently contracted with the Santa Barbara Unified School District at Santa Barbara, San Marcos, Dos Pueblos and La Cuesta High Schools. This year she has provided 7 workshops, in which UCSB student-educators lead small groups.

When they meet, they make a circle. That circle is a safe space. It’s a mutually recognized and accepted area of honesty, full attention, and privacy.

“Being in our group, we gave our life stories. We gave what we had. If we’re open with others, we get to make some amazing bonds with people,” said Jackson, a senior at San Marcos High School. His ex-girlfriend, he tells the group, was verbally abusive and tried to influence him to have sex when he didn’t want to.

Beyond making bonds, these high school students learn how to recognize different forms of abuse. They talk about their families. They describe bad relationships they’ve been in, and good relationships. The cycles of abuse come to life in weekly discussions.

“You go from the honeymoon stage to the tension stage to the explosive stage, and then you kind of go back. It really taught me that that’s exactly what I was going through,” said Kimberly, a senior at San Marcos High who had recently gotten out of a harmful relationship.

Currently, Christy’s workshop is only open for small, randomly selected groups of students. But those participants agree each student in high school would benefit from learning about healthy love. The particulars, however, are up for debate. How do you create safe space on a larger scale? More and more relationships begin in middle school. Should it be taught then? Could it be taught in health class, or does the setting need to be more specialized? Can health teachers even give this topic the time it needs within their already packed curriculum? Who will train teachers and counselors to properly address dating abuse?

Senator Jackson hopes the bill will create a framework for each school to use while answering these questions. She hopes the students affected by the bill will take that knowledge with them, wherever they head. It’s a step, she hopes, toward less shocking sexual abuse statistics.

“We’re now going to go out to college and we’re going to be those people who know it’s not okay. We’re going to tell our friends ‘Hey, we went through this program and we’re gonna help you.’” – Jackson, senior at San Marcos High School