Schools across Oregon are changing their sex education curriculum in response to a state law aimed at preventing child sex abuse.
Oregon passed a version of “Erin’s Law” in 2015, as part of a national movement involving new laws in 36 states.
In addition to Erin’s law, Oregon adopted new state standards requiring schools to teach students about consent, gender expression and sexually transmitted diseases starting in kindergarten.
But the lessons aren’t the same at 5 as they are at 15.
Learning Consent In the Classroom
Rock Creek Elementary teacher Evelyn Hinds is acting out a scenario with one of her kindergarteners, Akanksha. The rest of the class is seated on a colorful alphabet carpet, watching.
“I’m a person Akanksha’s never seen before,” Hinds explains, telling Akanksha and the students to pretend a soccer game has just ended.
The lesson is scripted, part of an Erin’s Law lesson on stranger safety.
“Hey, you know that shirt looks really sweaty from that soccer game, let me just help you get that shirt off,” Hinds said, acting. Akanksha reacts immediately.
“No!” Akanksha replied. “Stop!”
Hinds leaves her creepy character behind and congratulates Akanksha, giving her a high-five.
Teachers all over Oregon are using scenarios like these to teach students the “Protect Yourself” rules. Rules called “Safe Touch, Unsafe Touch” and “Shout, Run, Tell” help students learn how to protect themselves against abuse.
The curriculum is being implemented at a time when the #MeToo movement highlights the need for consent and awareness around issues of sexual assault.
Erin’s Law lessons are built around scripted scenarios and age-appropriate videos.
After Hinds plays a video on “Stranger Safety,” the kids talk to each other about strangers and recite the rules they’ve learned. They color booklets featuring screenshots from the video.
Hinds has taught lessons on stranger safety before, but she says using videos after Erin’s Law has been completely different.
She says the videos are informative without being scary.
“The kids are going to get that this is important, and this is something I need to take seriously, but I don’t have to be terrified,” said Hinds. “I don’t have to be afraid because these ‘protect yourself’ rules are what’s going to empower me.”
She’s also heard her students talking about the lessons beyond the initial videos, like after she taught the students to “Shout, Run, Tell” in unsafe situations.
“They started having conversations with each other and asking really hard questions,” said Hinds. “[They asked] What if it’s my uncle? What if it’s my mom, the person that I should trust?”
This is Beaverton’s first year teaching the new sexual awareness lessons from kindergarten through high school.
By 11th grade, a lesson on stranger safety and “Safe Touch, Unsafe Touch” has turned into a lesson about consent and relationships.
During class at Mountainside High School, students in small groups talk about what consent means.
“Just because someone said ‘yes’ last week doesn’t mean it’s still a ‘yes’ this week,” says junior Vivian Knudsen.
Sitting next to her, junior Katie Lee replies. “It’s just about being on the same page and making sure they know,” Lee said.
Teacher Jenn Hicks talks through different scenarios with her students. She asks them to indicate with a thumbs up or thumbs down whether each situation is consensual.
There aren’t any Erin’s Law videos for high school, so Hicks found a video on YouTube.
And instead of coloring booklets, students write out answers to reflection questions.
More Than Consent
In 2016, Oregon adopted new health education standards. Beginning in kindergarten, students should be learning about media influence on health and ways to prevent diseases.
Students should also be learning that there are many ways to express gender - and how to communicate respectfully with people of all sexual orientations.
Without lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity before, Hicks said teachers could define the terms, but didn’t teach about the topics.
“Now we have specific lessons to just address what each of those areas are – that they’re not necessarily related, they often are very separate in people’s lives, and that there are spectrums,” said Hicks.
She says the lessons bring awareness to the LGBTQ community. And her students have noticed.
Hicks recalls a moment last year, when she was piloting the new program.
“One of my students who prefers the pronouns them/they came up to me after class, literally in tears, saying this is the first time they ever felt recognized in a health classroom,” said Hicks. “That was such a powerful experience.”
But there have also been negative reactions, both in and outside the classroom.
Backlash From Parents and Students
At meetings and public hearings early on, as the curriculum was being developed, there was very little concern, Hicks said.
“Now that it’s being implemented, these new standards and targets, we’re starting to see some concern over the content of what’s being taught,” said Hicks.
At an April school board meeting, parents and community members packed the room. With the district facing millions of dollars in budget cuts, some people were there to advocate for more school funding. But there were more comments about the curriculum.
Some parents talked about the scenarios being presented in middle and high school classes, calling them overly sexual.
“There seems to be a pervasive ethos in the name of sexual health being taught to lead children in imagining and visualizing and acting themselves in potentially very dangerous sexual situations,” said Russell Rutledge. “Oftentimes situations that are far beyond normal conversations and activity that would be expected at their age.”
Others took exception to the lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Clete Werts has four children in Beaverton schools. He told the Beaverton School Board he wants to choose what his children learn.
“What I’m asking for is that you teach fact,” said Wertz. “Teach biology, teach how do you procreate, and let the rest us as parents teach.”
Beaverton provides opt-out options to parents.
Administrator for Secondary Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Brian Sica responded to the comments he heard at the board meeting.
“They’re giving us feedback, they’re staying involved in their children’s education,” said Sica. “We need to make sure we’re giving them all the information, all the materials, anything we can do to give to them to make sure they partner with us and make informed decisions about their children’s education.”
Hicks says she’s had students express concern, too. She has told students that even if they don’t agree with something, they still have to respect others.
“It is more being respectful and to help reduce the amount of violence and abuse that a lot of times, especially our LGBTQ community experiences,” said Hicks.
With the new program, schools had to make room in their busy schedules to squeeze in lessons. High school students pack their schedules with graduation requirements, advanced courses and elective classes they want to take.
Beaverton administrators are using advisory periods scheduled during the day, to provide the sex ed content. Hicks says that means health teachers aren’t the only ones teaching lessons on consent and relationships.
“Our science, our lit comp, our drama teacher, I mean everybody’s helping to create this climate,” said Hicks.
All Oregon school districts will be required to adhere to these new standards, but the state may not know who is complying until 2020. The results of a 2017 survey show only a few school districts had created comprehensive sexuality education plans.
In the advisory classes, Hicks sees an opportunity to create safe spaces for students all over the school and with other teachers.
But if teachers do not feel comfortable with a lesson, counseling staff is available to help.
“The overall goal is just healthy, happy kids who become healthy, happy adults, and having a community that’s stronger and more respectful,” said Hicks.