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A proposed bill could require consent to be taught in New Hampshire schools

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Under proposed legislation, health education in New Hampshire’s public schools would be required to have instruction about consent, prevention of sexual violence and personal boundaries.

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Consent, in its most basic form, means your body belongs to you. The bill would teach this to New Hampshire students of all ages, starting with helping young kids to understand basic concepts of consent.

For example, if they want to touch their classmate, they need permission first. The curriculum would evolve as students age to address more intimate relationships and is intended to be a preventative measure against sexual violence.

There are 11 states and the District of Columbia that require consent education in schools. If the legislation passes, New Hampshire would join that group.

The bill is sponsored by several state representatives, including Rep. Amanda Toll of Keene and Rep. Debra Altschiller of Stratham. All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Rep. Altschiller about what consent education would look like. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: Representative, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Rep. Debra Altschiller: Peter, thank you so much for having me on today. I'm very excited to be able to talk about this legislation.

Peter Biello: Well, let's set the table for those who may not be familiar. What are consent and consent education? What do you mean by that?

Rep. Debra Altschiller: So, consent and consent education are a public safety portion of education, so it is about establishing healthy boundaries and empowering students to internalize the message that their body belongs to them and their classmates' bodies belong to them. And so that's at its essence, a healthy boundary.

Peter Biello: There are 11 states and the District of Columbia that have mandated consent education. If this bill becomes law, New Hampshire may join that group. Why should consent education be mandatory?

Rep. Debra Altschiller: So, we believe that consent education should be included in the health instruction education because it is a public health topic. It is about how we teach and empower children to understand about the world around them and to give them the tools to be empowered to take action that keeps them healthy and safe.

So, let me compare it to something that we already have in statute right now. We have, in statute, that we need to teach kids about the effects of alcohol and other drugs. And oftentimes, school districts, because we have some local control, they will farm that out to a DARE program, or they will bring in one of the public health programs that has an early education, alcohol and drug awareness. And that is part of our public health in keeping kids aware of what's out there, how it could affect them positively, negatively. How do they interact with these things within their communities? And this is the same thing.

We like to talk about this, and I often use this example that, the empowerment basic message in consent curriculum, across the board, is my body belongs to me. It's kind of like a Sesame Street phrase, if you will, for a three-year-old, four-year-old, five-year-old, it's a really simple concept that their body belongs to them.

But as you get older and as you reiterate that message and as you layer on to that message, it becomes much more nuanced in terms of your relationships with the people around you. We start with when you're keeping your body to yourself, you are not invading other people's spaces. You are asking permission to touch other people. We're asking permission to move past them, to engage in play with them. And as we get older, what we want to do is embed that empowerment into healthy relationships and consent.

Peter Biello: So, you mentioned young kids and a Sesame Street-style message, I wanted to ask you about young kids in particular. Why is it important to start this kind of conversation at such a young age?

Rep. Debra Altschiller: It's incredibly important because the young children are most at risk. That is that is unfortunately a fact here in New Hampshire.

Peter Biello: At risk, you mean like at risk of possibly being touched inappropriately?

Rep. Debra Altschiller: Yes, they are at risk for sexual violence and it is incredible the need that we have to let children know that they are empowered to seek help when they need it.

Peter Biello: So, how would this be integrated into the curricula? Would this become a part of sex ed and health classes at all grade levels?

Rep. Debra Altschiller: So I'm glad you brought that up because consent, age appropriate consent education, respect for personal boundaries and sexual violence prevention are not sex education. Now, it would be amazing and really, really forward-thinking for sex educators to incorporate consent curriculum into their programing. But that's not what this is about. This is about personal body safety. This is about respect for personal boundaries, and that doesn't always, but often does, translate into inappropriate sexual conduct. So, this is an empowering message. Let me give you an example of something that we do across the curriculum, across every school here in the state of New Hampshire. We do fire drills. What we want is for there to be just as pervasive a message for students to learn that my body belongs to me. Touches in the private area are never a secret and that if somebody is touching me in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable, I can get help.

Peter Biello: So, if there are parents out there who say, 'You know, I would prefer to do this myself. I don't want kids to get consent education at school.' What would you say to those parents who would prefer to do it themselves?

Rep. Debra Altschiller: I would say that, and the prime sponsor of this legislation, Representative Amanda Toll from Cheshire County, she and I are very, very excited and would encourage every parent to incorporate this into their home. To talk about my body belongs to me and to talk to their students and talk to their children about how their body belongs to them, and that choices they make about how they interact with their friends impact the people around them. I don't think any parent would object to children in kindergarten or in preschool, learning that when they're on their carpet square at circle time, that they keep their hands to themselves, that they are not flailing about and hitting their neighbors. So, that's actually a basic message in my body belongs to me.

These messages of consent and respect for personal boundaries are part of the buildable curriculum that is a part of public safety, so that when children are older and they're navigating interpersonal relationships, they have a basis of knowledge that, 'Oh yeah, my body belongs to me and choices I make about myself and the people around me impact the people around me.' So, yeah, I would encourage every parent to join in in teaching these messages and know that when their students get to school, that healthy curriculum of my body belongs to me and respect for personal boundaries is being amplified, highlighted and encouraged at school.

Peter Biello: State Representative Debora Altschiller, thank you so much for speaking with me on this.

Rep. Debra Altschiller: Oh, it's my pleasure, Peter, and I want to thank Representative Amanda Toll for putting this forward and to bring the coalition of youth activists from End Sexual Violence on Campus and the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence together to make this happen. Thank you. I really, really appreciate it.

Corrected: January 13, 2022 at 5:41 PM EST
A previous version of this post identified Rep. Altschiller as representing Rockingham. Altschiller represents Stratham. We regret the error.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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