By Emma Derr
Representatives of a local nonprofit agency are bringing the #MeToo movement to Rockbridge County area schools by talking to students about consent and physical boundaries.
Erin Crosby, Project Horizon’s education coordinator, said the group wants to visit and talk to students of all grade levels about the meaning of consent.
Crosby said she has given presentations at every elementary school in the county and in Lexington since she started her job last year. Last month, she organized 20 presentations in Fairfield Elementary School classrooms.
Consent has been an issue for years on college campuses that struggle with dealing with allegations of sexual assault. But the #MeToo movement was brought into the national spotlight by actresses and celebrities speaking up about their experiences with Harvey Weinstein, a prominent producer.
“I think there are a lot of brave people who are finding their voices, and it is long overdue,” said Judy Casteele, Project Horizon’s executive director.
The impact of Project Horizon in the community
Though Project Horizon’s education program began 20 years ago, it has been evolving and expanding ever since.
“We try to teach consent in some capacity with all of the grades, although we do not necessarily always use the word consent,” Crosby said.
Crosby said for kindergarten through third grade, she teaches a “good touch, bad touch” curriculum, which allows children to understand appropriate forms of physical contact.
For fourth grade and fifth grade, she instructs students on how to recognize abuse.
Then, from sixth grade through high school, she focuses on domestic and sexual violence prevention.
Though Crosby has primarily visited elementary schools, she is planning presentations at local middle schools and high schools in the coming months.
Crosby already talks to students at Parry McCluer High School in Buena Vista once a month during their morning study hall periods.
“During our lesson last time, I asked the students to think about a relationship they are in, any kind of relationship, and describe it by using molding clay,” she said.
The impact of #MeToo
Representatives at New Directions Center, a Staunton agency that provides services to survivors of sexual abuse, said they have noticed an uptick in cases since the #MeToo movement spread.
Kara Pyles, the director of progress and development, said more women who have experienced sexual assault are coming in for counseling and medical exams.
“I think more people are willing to come forward since MeToo, and I think we have seen a lot less victim blaming because of these movements,” she said. “Some victims have been met with a lot of opposition and people not believing their story. … But now people are not automatically believing the perpetrator, which encourages people to come forward.”
Pyles said talking about physical consent in high school is critical because people between 18 and 24 are most likely to experience sexual assault, especially in the first semester of college.
“Seven out of 10 times, sexual assaults occur with someone the victim knows,” she said. “It happens in rural communities. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t exist as an agency.”
Consent and the curriculum
Allie Fields, a senior at Rockbridge County High School, said her school’s sexual education curriculum doesn’t include any discussion on physical consent – and that’s a problem for her.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, the state’s schools offer a K-12 curriculum that includes instruction in “abstinence education” and the “value of postponing sexual activity.” Virginia doesn’t mandate physical consent as part of the curriculum, but school systems have the option to include it.
“I honestly feel that our school system fails with educating us about the social part of living our lives,” Fields said. “They need to take the extra step to teach about consent itself because high school is the stepping stone to college.”
Last year, Fields said her sociology class took a survey on sexual consent. It found that the majority of people in her class didn’t understand the term.
“It scared me a little bit that there are people walking in our halls who don’t really know the meaning of yes or no in certain situations,” Fields said.
Phillip Thompson, the superintendent of Rockbridge County Schools, said he doesn’t want consent to be mandated in the curriculum. He said teachers should maintain discretion over whether to talk about sexual consent with students.
“We are in a time when these topics are coming up more and more,” he said. “Students need to be aware of their options, but it should be taught at the right place, at the right time, with the right students.”
Elizabeth Lauck, whose daughter is a freshman at RCHS said she realizes the importance of preventing sexual misconduct.
“I am in favor of teaching sexual consent,” Lauck said. “And I’ve always been in favor of women speaking up about their experiences.”
Lauck said her 26-year-old daughter, who also attended Rockbridge schools, received just the “nuts and bolts anatomy” while she was in school. But, her younger children – including her daughter at RCHS – are now receiving instruction on physical consent from Project Horizon’s staff.
“The greatest prevention work you can do is teach consent at a younger age,” Pyles said. “There are no negatives in teaching people how to respect other people.”