Building healthy relationships and a culture of consent


We live in a time when issues of sexual assault and harassment are finally receiving the attention and outrage they deserve. Courageous victims have come forward with harrowing tales of assault, and perpetrators are being brought to justice. These are undoubtedly steps toward progress, but wouldn’t it be so much better if incidences of sexual misconduct were much, much more rare?

Our students confront complex issues related to romantic and sexual relationships in high school, of course. One only has to attend a school event or walk around at lunch to see students exploring relationships. These issues can become even more supercharged in college and postsecondary life. It has been my experience that even the most naive and innocent high school student can suddenly be involved in navigating all that goes with a romantic, intimate relationship.

At one time we advised our college-going children (our sons in particular) that “no means no,” but tragically we’ve seen too many high-profile cases recently that tell us this instruction simply does not go far enough. We’ve all heard of numerous situations where a victim is unable to say “no” due to their state of mind or physical condition. These situations are often tragic and can have life-altering consequences for both the victim and the perpetrator and must be addressed.

As with all of society’s problems, the public looks to our schools to guide young people and help to shape their values and judgment. We think we are well positioned to do this and have the right experts to help us in this work. We want to provide more than: “no means no.” We want to broaden the conversation to create a culture of respect (consent) and open conversation allowing our children the agency needed for an enthusiastic “yes” when the time is right in a healthy, mature relationship. 

In the next few months, our high schools in San Mateo, Burlingame, Millbrae and San Bruno will embark on sexual affirmative consent training for all our students. Every student whose parent/guardian does not opt out will attend a dynamic, informative presentation at school in October or November. Administrators, teachers, and counselors have received training as well. Parents/guardians are invited to a free workshop 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27 in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.

My sons and daughters are (nearly all) out of college and I have to say that this issue is one I worried about more than almost any other during this time in their life. An incident — either as a victim or an accused perpetrator — could have derailed everything. I had neither the right words nor the training to have these conversations in as productive a manner as if I had some education surrounding this topic. I wish I could have built on something from their school. In the meantime, if you want to have something serious yet amusing to discuss at the dinner table, search for the Tea Consent Video on YouTube (choose the clean version).

We want to empower our students with the language and tools of consent for both sexual and non-sexual situations so they are best equipped to create healthy, fulfilling relationships. This beneficial societal change creates for schools an opportunity to provide all our students with the skills and confidence to navigate some of life’s most important moments. We’re pleased to be seizing it.

Kevin Skelly, Ph.D. is the superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District, a position he has held since 2015.

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