University Contracted Independent Organization One Less presented the Teach Safe Relationships Act bill with Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine to the U.S. Senate Tuesday Feb. 3. Members of One Less worked with Kaine to craft the bill.
One Less is an all-female student group committed to educating students on sexual and domestic violence and empowering survivors in the community.
Crafting the bill
In an email, a spokesperson for Senator Tim Kaine said the idea for the Bill emerged in response to University students expressing concern over the lack of sexual assault prevention education in K-12 education. The spokesperson said these comments were made in the wake of the Rolling Stone article.
“With young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four consistently experiencing the highest rate of intimate partner violence, Senator Kaine believes it’s important that schools promote safe relationship behavior and teach students about these heinous crimes that disproportionately impact young people”
Kaine first met with One Less last December to discuss gender violence. One Less Outreach Chair Alex Pinkleton, a third-year College student, said the group discussion focused on the importance of early education.“[Kaine] had the idea to create this legislation in an effort to prevent sexual assault, domestic violence and dating violence,” Pinkleton said. “One Less stressed the importance of early education regarding safe sexual and emotional relationships as many individuals arrive on Grounds without ever discussing consent or what a healthy relationship looks like, even if they have already experienced sexual activity or a relationship.”
One Less member Madeline DuCharme, a fourth-year College student, said the idea behind the act is to educate middle school and high school students about healthy relationships, before they enter college, which is sometimes considered a high-risk environment.
“This means that from a young age people will know what consent is and what constitutes a good relationship,” DuCharme said. “It will be a good thing for people moving into college to already have exposure to this kind of education.”
DuCharme explained one of the major problems with sexual violence is that many students start college without proper knowledge. This is especially dangerous because of the “Red Zone,” a period in the first semester of college when the risk of sexual assault, especially among freshman women, is the highest.
“Students are given a quick orientation they talk about sexual assault, but they’re also taking about their meal plan and roommates; there isn’t enough time to really educate people,” DuCharme said. “We need to start education earlier so it is more effective.”
One Less member Evelyn Wang, a first-year College student, said sexual violence is not limited to the university setting.
“According to [the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network], 44 percent of survivors are assaulted before the age of 18, which just shows how the issue of sexual assault is not unique to college students” Wang said. “The culture of violence begins at an early age and thus needs to be addressed early.”
Wang said that although sexual education is mandated in some public schools, many schools do not teach it adequately.
“We do not [want] the same to happen with safe relationship training” Wang said. “Safe relationship training is only effective if the content of the training is good.”
The proposal mandates educators to create courses that “incorporate elements of effective and evidence-based programs that promote safe relationship behavior”, thus preventing relationship violence among teens.
Although a seemingly ambiguous term, the Bill defines ‘safe relationship behavior’ education as “age-appropriate education that promotes safe relationships and teaches students to recognize and prevent physical and emotional relationship abuse, including teen and adolescent dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment.”
The bill would also aid local and state institutions in completing Title IX requirements and provide grants for the training of secondary school educators.
“This legislation would assist secondary schools by authorizing grants towards providing safe relationship behavior educational curricula for students and educating staff and administration about this curricula,” Pinkleton said. “Finally, it will require that these educational programs be culturally and linguistically appropriate and be based in the numerous studies about the most effective ways to reduce sexual and relationship violence.”
The legislative process
The Relationships Act would amend the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act. The Schools Act is due for reauthorization by Congress later this year to include education on appropriate behavior in sexual and domestic relationships as part of already required sexual education courses.
The spokesperson said the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee has begun the process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).
“Senator Kaine will encourage the HELP Committee to incorporate this legislation into the ESEA as it’s redrafted,” the spokesperson said. “If it is not incorporated in the Committee’s bill, Senator Kaine will likely introduce it as an amendment when the bill is sent to the Senate floor for debate later this year.”
This includes education regarding consent as well as emotional health and well-being in relationships.
Wang said with a long process of revision and debate ahead, Wang said she believes the next steps of passing and implementing the bill will not be easy. Accordingly, she said student lobbying efforts could play an important role in ensuring the Bill is enacted.
“We will need student lobbyists to promote this bill, and [we] will need to promote it all across the country to raise awareness and support,” she said. “We need to fight to get this bill passed, and then we will need to fight to get it implemented correctly.”
Members of One Less said they are optimistic about the future of this bill and hope University students will stand behind the new legislation.
I just want to encourage everyone to write letters to their senators and representatives to support this bill, and to encourage their friends to do the same,” Wang said. “We all have a crucial role to play in getting this bill passed, and not a single person [is] unimportant.
The bill in action
Though this type of comprehensive health education is currently not mandatory in secondary schools, the hope is that such age-appropriate education may lessen the prevalence of relationship violence.
Albemarle School Board member Jason Buyaki said if the bill is passed, Board members would work with administrators and teachers to decide how to implement it into the school curriculum and obtain funding. Buyaki said he is wary regarding how exactly the Bill will be implemented, particularly because it will be the responsibility of each school district to determine how best to incorporate these topics into school curricula.
“I’m always leery about anytime curriculum comes down from the Federal government or State government because a lot of times they’ll pass a law, but then they don’t send the funding along with it,” Buyaki said. “To me, this one may not have such heavy cost burden because you can incorporate it into the curriculum, but we would leave it up to the professionals in the school system.”
Buyaki said he believes the proposed legislation is an important step towards acknowledging the problem sexual violence, but that it will likely not completely end offenses.
“A law won’t prevent violence, but it will raise awareness and raising awareness can help to condemn behaviors and stop them,” Buyaki said. “But it comes down to the individual and if the individual is bent on being violent, then there’s not a lot stopping them.”