Sexual assault measure would change consent standards in public schools

Legislators file a bill that’s seen bipartisan support in the past and say they hope the governor will OK it for this month’s session

By: - January 10, 2022 5:30 am

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I asked Rep. Elizabeth Thomson if she would be comfortable sharing her experiences with sexual assault. 

She said yes. 

It was a subtle and simple practice in affirmative consent. She didn’t have to say anything, didn’t even need to meet my request. I would not have pushed her to share, but she did, and we engaged in a conversation that she would like to become a standard in high schools across New Mexico. 

“I don’t remember anybody sitting me down and saying, ‘You know, if a guy puts his hand on your butt and you don’t like it, you can kick him in the shins,’ ” Thomson (D-Albuquerque) said.

Now she said it’s important to not provoke violence. Rather she’d like to assert the idea that young people should have the empowerment to call out those who assault them and violate their personal safety. Thomson said when she was young she didn’t speak out about her experiences with sexual assault because she didn’t know how, or even think it was appropriate to bring up. It’s something she hopes this legislation will resolve by bringing these issues forward for young people to discuss. 

Thomson said her generation was taught incorrectly to be complacent toward that type of action. 

“If I was in a situation like that, rather than cause trouble, rather than being mean, rather than being aggressive, you just move his hand, you know. Maybe you hold his hands.”

She’s the lead sponsor of House Bill 44, an effort that would set affirmative consent as the standard for sexual activity in public schools. This would affect rules at public schools around responses to assault allegations and how they’re investigated. And it would impact how consent is taught in health courses. 

“I’m getting towards the retirement age, but there are still people — principals, teachers — around who weren’t taught it,” she said. “And hopefully by now, there’s not people who still think the way we were taught was the appropriate way.”

Rep. Andrés Romero (D-Albuquerque) is a co-sponsor of the bill. He said the concept is imperative for all students to understand and sees a benefit for boys to learn how their actions can impact female students. 

“I think that it’s certainly a different way for male students to start thinking about their actions and the actions of their partner and to ensure that they’re in sync with one another,” he said.

According to the The New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (NMCSAP), the state is seventh in the nation for rates of sexual violence, and 41% of these type of cases involve children. HB 44 would also benefit sexual assault services by providing institutions financial support to not only evaluate the scope of these types of cases in their schools but also giving money for education on affirmative consent.

In most New Mexico counties, 27 out of 33 counties in the state lack adequate sexual assault services, according to the coalition. 

“I think it’s super important  that males really engage in this and understand the implications of their actions and are sympathetic and understanding of their partners and their partner’s wants and desires — or do not want, and boundaries,” Romero said.

Sponsors of the bill are calling for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to make the proposed legislation a priority in the upcoming 30-day legislative session. It’s something they said they understand could be difficult considering the monthlong meeting is often reserved for budget items. 

Their hope is that it would pass easily, as affirmative consent has seen bipartisan support in previous sessions. 

“The bottom line is it’s going to protect kids,” Thomson said. “And not just kids, but it’s going to keep people safer.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.