By Georgia Roberts
Only minutes into a mandatory consent class at his school, Jack* realised he had to leave.
“I stood up, left the classroom and started crying in the hallway,” he said.
Jack is a sexual assault survivor and was one of several students who recently walked out of a consent education lesson at a Canberra high school.
Jack said he was initially given the opportunity, along with some of his peers, to take time out in what’s known as the quiet room — a designated space in the school for students when they need some time to calm down.
But he said after 15 minutes, teachers began asking the students to return to the lesson, which was being run by a visiting external provider.
“Teachers would start coming in and being like, ‘hey, when are you going back?'” Jack said.
The students refused, and Jack recalled some were still in tears.
He said the students were then given an ultimatum — either return to class or have their parents called and be sent home.
“For the teachers to come in, and just be like ‘when are you going back?’ and instead of ‘hey, are you OK with coming back?’ or anything like that, it’s just like it wasn’t a question,” he said.
It wasn’t the content of the lesson that Jack and the other students had a problem with, he said, but rather how the school handled their reactions.
“It made me feel just really invalidated. Especially when you’ve had those experiences [of sexual assault],” he said.
He said he sat down with one teacher after the incident to say he felt the situation went against the message they were being taught.
“I was sitting there in tears, [saying] it’s not OK to do that,” he said.
“Either saying, ‘hey, you have to go back to a triggering environment or go home,’ when there could potentially be repercussions for that, is completely inconsiderate and potentially more damaging to those people.
“I wholeheartedly believe we were forced to go back to that classroom.”
Know who is in your class
Helen Cahill, an emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne who develops gender-based violence prevention resources with the UN, drew a parallel between Jack’s case and that of a student needing to go to the sick bay.
She said being overwhelmed by content in the way Jack was could be as unpredictable as a wave of nausea, a feeling that requires students to immediately leave a classroom.
“If they have just gone to the sick bay because they had an attack of gastro, we’d need to check, what do we need to do now? What do you [the student] need?” she said.
“If students do choose to exit a classroom because they’re finding something distressing, the appropriate proactive approach for the school is to check in on them.
“That checking-in process is part of what we call the continuity of pastoral care.”
Professor Cahill said consent education was a sensitive matter that required a number of elements to be executed correctly in a “proactive approach” by educators.
“First, we need to have the teacher who knows the students teaching the class so they have continuity of care and know how to manage a safe and supportive relationship in that classroom in general,” Professor Cahill said.
“I’ve had the opportunity to research with a lot of children and young people on this issue and what they’re saying is, ‘we really want our teachers to teach on this topic, we want them to help us have supported time to talk about these issues.'”
Ms Cahill said it was also important for educators to know who was coming into their classroom.
“The other thing we asked schools and teachers to sensitise themselves around is the possibility that we might have, in a classroom together, people who are both the perpetrators and those who’ve been victimised in the one room,” she said.
Late-teens most likely to experience sexual violence
Hayley Foster is the chief executive of Full Stop Australia, an organisation that provides support, education and advocacy in the sexual and domestic violence space.
She wasn’t surprised to hear about the situation facing Jack and his peers and echoed Ms Cahill’s calls for a teacher known to the students to deliver consent education.
She suggested schools across Australia could adopt a designated educator for the role.
“Given what we know about the prevalence of sexual violence for young people – those aged 15 to 19 are not only among the highest to experience sexual violence but also to perpetrate it – there needs to be a qualified respectful relationship educator in every high school,” she said.
“This person would be a safe contact point for any student who seeks support, advice, or guidance.
“The number-one obligation of every school is to ensure the safety of their students, not only their physical safety but also their psychosocial safety.”
Both Ms Foster and Professor Cahill described the ideal structure around consent education as a “whole-of-school approach”.
“Consent and respectful relationship education need a whole-of-school approach.
“Everyone across the school community needs to be upskilled to respond appropriately in a trauma-informed way.” Professor Cahill said.
She said students needed to be confident about who they could rely on for support, including their peers, something she called “peer referral”.
Peer referral can range from a friend of the student being aware of their experience to a school teaching students how to react if someone shares sensitive information with them.
“The more we equip the peer group around the child, the better protective factors we have in place for them and the more the young person who felt they couldn’t be there in a classroom knows that their teacher and peers still care,” Professor Cahill said.
Will mandatory consent education be possible?
Teach Us Consent, a movement started by activist Chanel Contos, campaigned for months to eventually secure a set date from the former government to make consent education mandatory in every school across Australia.
This was no easy feat. Teach Us Consent garnered tens of thousands of signatures in its campaign.
The federal government agreed but there is still no uniform approach on how this could look in schools.
A spokesperson for federal Education Minister Jason Clare said the new Labor government supported the promise, and that the curriculum signed off by the former government in April would be available for use in schools from the beginning of next year.
But his office said while the decision was federal, it would be up to states and territories to interpret the curriculum and decide which subjects they include the material within.
“States, territories and non-government schools are responsible for ensuring that all consent education is evidence-based, developed by experts, and appropriate to a child’s age,” the spokesperson said.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) said by 2023, schools “may” begin to offer age-appropriate consent and respectful relationship education, meaning it will still be at the school’s discretion if and how consent education is implemented this year.
Consent education in the Australian curriculum:
- Explore how to seek, give or deny permission respectfully when sharing possessions or personal space
- Demonstrate protective behaviours, name body parts and rehearse help-seeking strategies that help keep them safe
- Identify and explore skills and strategies to develop respectful relationships
- Practise strategies students can use when they need to seek, give or deny permission respectfully
- Identify and demonstrate protective behaviours and help-seeking strategies students can use to help them and others stay safe
- Rehearse and refine strategies for seeking, giving and denying permission respectfully and describe situations when permission is required
- Describe strategies for seeking, giving or denying consent and rehearse how to communicate intentions effectively and respectfully
- Explain and apply skills and strategies to communicate assertively and respectfully when seeking, giving or denying consent
- Examine how strategies, such as communicating choices, seeking, giving and denying consent, and expressing opinions and needs can support the development of respectful relationships, including sexual relationships
Jack has some advice for schools when they implement consent education into the curriculum.
“I just think schools need to be aware of people’s boundaries and that when people are triggered from that situation, it is not OK to make them go back,” he said.
“This is a very serious topic and it needs to be discussed, but it also needs to be discussed in a manner where it … isn’t harmful.”
*Name has been changed for anonymity.