Advocates of teaching ‘yes means yes’ in NM public schools gain traction in the Roundhouse

Despite lengthy debates, a bill is progressing that aims to change how we think about consent and stop assault

By: - February 13, 2023 4:15 am
Elena Gonzales, 17, reads a poem about her experience with sexual assault to a group of high school students supporting affirmative consent legislation.

A year ago, students rallied at the Roundhouse for an affirmative consent bill that lawmakers in committee voted was beyond the scope of the 30-day, budget-focused legislative session. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

For advocates of affirmative consent, it’s about shifting our approach to sexual assault from one that is punitive and reactive to one that is preventive.

“The knee-jerk reaction to go to punishment is because that’s how it’s been presented to us in the past, instead of stopping it before it happens,” said Jess Clark, director of sexual violence prevention for the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs. “In a world where sexual violence is prevalent, this is the route we need to go to create a better world for our children.”

House Bill 43 would set “yes means yes” as the standard for teaching consent in public schools from eighth to 11th grade. It would also require public colleges to provide resources to students and use trauma-informed approaches for victims of assault.

Clark said he’s been teaching affirmative consent for 10 years, and the conversations around consent with students have changed a lot from when he first started. He said students are able to access conversations around consent before they even reach middle school and are curious to talk about.

“(This bill) is about us grown ups catching up to where the youth want to be,” Clark said.

This is the third time the bill has been brought up at the Roundhouse. It’s supposed to be heard in the Senate Education Committee today after clearing the House last week.

Students have led the way in supporting the bill. Students marched on the Roundhouse last year and this year to call for this change to how assault is talked about in public schools. And many current and former students spoke out at a House Education Committee hearing to talk about how the measure would change their lives.

Supporters turn out to champion affirmative consent in Roundhouse hearing

Democrats praised the bill during the debate for incorporating lessons about consent that would’ve benefited them when they were younger. 

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Albuquerque) talked about her young grandchildren who live in California and who are already learning about consent. She said respect for the autonomy of others has become a natural part of their lives. Her 8-year-old grandson already knows how to treat others with respect, she said, and has even asked permission from a girl in his class if he could tell other people he likes her.

“That’s step one,” Roybal Caballero said. “And for all those questions that came to you about ‘How this would play out,’ this is how it plays out. So that when he reaches middle school, high school and college and his adulthood, he will have already ingrained in him what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, what he can do and what he cannot do.”

Republican lawmakers attempted to stymie the bill, calling it “too vague” and questioning whether it goes far enough when considering harassment and sexual assault in schools. The bill would only create a new curriculum around consent for public school students in eighth grade and above. 

It would also require that public colleges incorporate trauma-informed responses for victims of sexual violence.

Schools would continue to defer to federal law already in place about sexual violence, said the bill’s sponsor Liz Thomson (D-Albuquerque).

Republicans like Rep. Larry Scott (Hobbs) and Rep. Stafani Lord (Sandia Park) said teenagers could be fickle and questioned what would happen if they claimed sexual activity was nonconsensual “after the fact,” a narrative that advocates for survivors say prevents people from speaking out.

Lord also questioned whether the bill provided sufficient guidance for schools to let parents opt out. She said the bill would inevitably lead to other steps that would require making the government bigger.

“I see the next step in this bill, we need to develop consequences. We can’t have kids holding hands, we can’t have them kissing, because then they get into a fight and then a week later now they’re mad at each other, and that’s not consent,” Lord said. “So I see where you’re going, but I also see where this bill is going, too. I also see going down a path of, well, we need to be a bigger government to have some sort of something that says you can’t do this.”

Brian Baca (R-Los Lunas) and Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell), the only two “no” votes when the bill was in the House Education Committee, echoed similar sentiments about punishing students who violate consent.

Thomson said that the bill does not prescribe any punishment or deal with interpersonal conflicts in schools.

Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon (D-Milan) admonished the debate, calling it “confusing” for bringing in a punishment aspect where it does not exist.

“I’m looking at the legislation and I’m looking for where it goes to court, and where does the judge come in and where does the officer come in with handcuffs. I can’t find it,” Alcon said. “And I was just concerned because after listening to the debate, I thought maybe we’re going to start locking up our high school kids.”

Reps. John Block (R-Alamogordo) and Cathrynn Brown (R-Carlsbad) both voiced concern about the bill promoting statutory rape by telling underaged students they can consent to sex, especially with adults. According to New Mexico law, minors between the ages of 13 and 17 may consent to sex with another minor if that minor is less than four years older than them.

“There’s a whole lot here that our society has let us down on,” Brown said. “We’ve kind of eroded our pillars of morality and now we end up with legislation that tries to fix things when, I think, if we abandon the supports for a good and civil society that’s protective of children, it’s about teaching them the message that premarital sex is not a good idea.” 

Thomson praised the house vote and said the bill would create clear boundaries for high school students to navigate their relationships and understand their right not to engage in any contact they are not comfortable with.

“Ensuring our schools proactively provide age-appropriate information about affirmative consent will help children of all ages learn how to recognize and stop dangerous behavior,” she said in a statement following the vote. “This bill helps to protect our kids by preventing assault and non-consensual activity before they ever occur.”


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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.