Bill provides consent definition for Illinois health classes

Sarah Sandlow, News Editor

Sophomore Madelyn Lasky completes a coloring page promoting consent in her health class. Bill HB 3550 provides a definition of consent to be used in all Illinois health curriculums for sixth to 12th grade students. Photo by Sarah Sandlow

The Clothesline Project, an event through Northwest CASA where students read stories of sexual violence written on T-shirts hanging in the gym, is a part of the Glenbrook North health curriculum for sophomores. Every shirt is made by a student from a local high school. Health teacher Kirby Tripple used to receive one or two shirts per semester in her health classes for the Clothesline Project. Now, she thinks she is receiving more.

“Why are kids not asking for [consent]?” said Tripple. “The fear is that ‘I’m excited to be doing this, and if someone says no, then I need to stop.’ So, a lot of people assume that it’s OK to keep going … and it’s not.”

Bill HB 3550, proposed by Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, provides a clear definition of consent to Illinois’ sex education curriculums for sixth through 12th grade, adding on to the current law that governs how sex education is taught. The current law states that there has to be a conversation about consent and sexual harassment as it applies to college campuses and the workplace, but does not provide a specific definition of consent to teach students. On April 4, 2019, the bill passed the Illinois House of Representatives with 103 votes in favor and 6 votes against. As of May 16, 2019, the bill passed the education committee unanimously and had a second reading on May 9, according to the Illinois General Assembly website.

According to Emily Melbye, chief of staff for Williams, the bill states that health course material must include an age-appropriate discussion on the meaning of consent. The bill defines consent as a freely given agreement to sexual activity, explaining that consent to one particular sexual activity does not constitute consent to other types of sexual activities and a person’s forced submission or lack of resistance also does not constitute consent. The definition also states that a person’s manner of dress does not constitute consent, nor does any consent to past sexual activities. Consent to one person does not mean consent to others and a person can withdraw consent at any time. A person cannot give consent if he or she does not understand the nature of the activity or is incapacitated due to certain circumstances, including being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, asleep or unconscious, incapacitated due to a mental disability or if the person consenting is a minor.

“What our bill does is steps in and puts consent at the forefront of the conversation by defining it in age-specific ways and ensuring that across Illinois, all [schools] are teaching the same definition of consent through their sex education curriculum,” Melbye said in a phone interview.

Betty Barsley-Marra, health educator at the Robert Crown Center for Health Education, said in a phone interview that she thinks it is important to teach kids as young as preschool age about the topic of consent. The bill shows that sixth grade is not too young to begin conversations about consent.

“But I still think there’s plenty more that probably should be legislated,” said Barsley-Marra. “For example, I would be thrilled if Illinois mandated sex education, which it currently does not. That would be a wonderful step forward.”

According to Tripple, the GBN health curriculum allocates a day dedicated to discussing consent that often coincides with the substance abuse and child development units, but health classes often spend more time on the topic. She tries to add consent into the curriculum as often as possible because of how important she thinks it is.

Sophomore Shelby Saichek, who is currently in health, said she thinks the bill will help the GBN health curriculum because the curriculum does a good job explaining what consent is, but she would like to see it do more.

“[Health classes] go over a lot of units very fast, and there’s not enough time dedicated to really important issues, like mental health and consent, and they spend so much time on human anatomy rather than really important, basic [understandings] of being a kind person,” Saichek said.

Tripple said she is pleased with how the GBN health curriculum covers the topic of consent, but she believes the addition of hard facts and more stories about sexual assault would benefit her lessons.

I think [the bill will] just open people’s eyes to the fact that this is a problem and the severity and the seriousness of getting consent.

“When someone says no, it’s not a negotiation, you’re not trying to change a no to a yes, be respectful,” said Tripple. “I shouldn’t have to say, ‘Imagine if that was your sister, imagine if that was your mother, your brother,’ whatever the situation is, for you to realize how terrible this is. It’s a matter of being kind, [treating] people how you want to be treated. We would like to think it’s as simple as that, but unfortunately, it’s not. People make bad choices.”