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How a Group of High School Students Changed Sexual Education in Virginia

Sheri Owen


Two years ago a group of high school students in Charlottesville thought something was lacking in their family life education, so they set out to make a difference and change Virginia law. As Mallory Noe-Payne reports, this week, they were successful. 

 Mollie Pepper and Ellen Yates, both recent high school graduates, were in Richmond Friday to watch the Governor sign a bill guaranteeing Virginia students will learn about consent in relationships. 


It was the end of a process that began when Pepper, as a junior, spent a school holiday combing through Virginia’s legal code. 


“Over winter break we read through the majority of the Standards of Learning for Family Life Education in Virginia and the laws kind of reflected what we had been seeing in our classes,” says Pepper. 


What they had been seeing in their classes was a lack of guidance on how to express what you’re comfortable with, and what you’re not comfortable with, in situations like the one Ellen Yates recalls. 


“I remember -- this was especially a problem during freshman and sophomore year -- catcalling during lunch,” Yates says. “Girls would get up to throw away trash from their lunch and there would be tables of guys who would catcall them.” 


Now, beginning next school year, students will have more opportunities to learn and discuss the ideas of permission and consent as they relate to all kinds of relationships. High school curriculum will also teach the legal definition of consent, and that in Virginia you can’t give consent for a sexual relationship until you’re over eighteen. 


Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn and state Senator Jennifer McClellan helped pass the measure.


“The concept of consent can begin as early as when you have a child who says ‘I don’t want to hug Grandma,’ and you need to respect that,” McClellan says. “Because if you say ‘No you have to hug Grandma anyway’ you are inadvertently teaching that child that what (they) want doesn’t matter. And that’s really the first step to creating a culture of ‘I can do what I want.’”


Advocates hope more education can change that culture. And, pointing to the young women who cared enough to rewrite the law, they say maybe that shift has already begun. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.