The Seal of the State of New Mexico inside the Roundhouse on Jan. 10, 2024. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source NM)
The affirmative consent bill that has tried to pass the statehouse at least three times is walking in familiar footsteps as supporters have parsed it down to focus solely on higher education.
House Bill 151 passed the Senate Education Committee in a unanimous, bipartisan 5-0 vote on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill died last year as the last item on the docket of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the penultimate day of the 2023 60-day session when the committee never reconvened after a Senate floor session.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) did not respond to a question about whether or not he intends to schedule the bill. He dodged multiple requests for comment about whether he planned to schedule the bill during the final days of last year’s session, before the bill ultimately ran out of time.
The reason for the higher education focus in this year’s version is, in part, due to the repeated alleged assaults on the New Mexico State University basketball team that resulted in the disbandment of the team in the middle of last season. Troubles passing the bill with a K-12 component resulted in lawmakers and a coalition of supporters to try to “take smaller bites,” said bill sponsor Rep. Liz Thomson (D-Albuquerque).
Thomson has worked with a coalition of 16 different organizations dedicated to addressing sexual violence. Those organizations include the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and Eastern New Mexico University.
“It’s important to note that many of those who are advocating for the higher education bill were advocating for this while they were in high school and have now gone on to college to advocate for it there,” said Alexandria Taylor, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs.
The 2024 bill would require trauma-informed practices to be implemented in higher education institutions and for the institution to connect students to resources when they report sexual assault, harassment, stalking or dating violence.
The bill defines trauma-informed responses as a response understanding the complexities of such acts and is mindful of myths and stereotypes surrounding sexual and domestic violence.
It would also require the establishment of affirmative consent or a, “yes means yes” policy when it comes to consent.
Supporters said that some mechanisms of handling sexual and domestic violence already exist in colleges and universities, therefore the bill would only ensure institutions are responding effectively and are connecting students to resources.
“Everything we are trying to do is help people who are impacted by this, and in this case that’s survivors and students,” Taylor said. “The bill has always been straightforward that yes, there are procedures in place, but they are not working as intended.”
Those who spoke in favor of the bill at the committee hearings this session said they wanted to hear about affirmative consent when they were growing up to be able to stand up for themselves.
Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, said that growing up as a gay man he believed that all men had to want to engage in sexual activity all the time. It wasn’t until later in life that he realized he didn’t have to. He said the bill would be a stepping stone to protect young people in New Mexico from violence.
“We know that all youth deserve to learn in safe environments,” Martinez said. ”We should do everything we can to create those environments everywhere in New Mexico.”
After midnight on Feb. 4, the House debated and passed the bill on a 44-17 vote.
During that debate, the bill wasl subject to misinformation from representatives who opposed the legislation. In response to some of those concerns, supporters said the bill does not prescribe punishment for cases of sexual and domestic violence, nor does it address how investigations are handled.
Thomson said the bill she sponsors is a step to prevent sexual and domestic violence and help show people that affirmative consent policies are effective, which she hopes will lead to understanding about having such policies in place in K-12 schools.
“Hopefully as people get used to the idea for older students they will realize that it’s not anything scary or horrible,” Thomson said. “And we’re not teaching kids to have sex. We’re just teaching kids some rules around all kinds of physical contact.”
It’s not yet clear when the K-12 affirmative consent bill will come back to the Roundhouse, as organizers continue to shape the bill with stakeholder feedback.
Thomson said she isn’t certain that young people aren’t learning enough about consent, but she hopes policies like affirmative consent can help.
“We want to help them understand that their bodies belong to only them,” Thomson said. “And only yes means yes.”
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