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Kelsiann Helsely, DSVS of Red Lodge

KELSIANN HELSLEY

The news last week that an Orchard Elementary teacher was jailed on charges that he allegedly molested at least two of his students likely left Billings Gazette readers shocked. In the protective space of an elementary school this is not supposed to happen. However, if you stop and consider the statistics – that one in four girls and one in 20 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18, and that 35 percent of all sexual assault victims are under the age of 12 – we should not be surprised. We should be moved to action.

Teaching the basics of consent to children can help to prevent sexual abuse, and it’s not difficult to do. Healthy relationships are built on consent. We all encounter consent many times a day.

Consent is giving permission to others to cross a boundary and enter our personal space to participate in activities with us. We all have that space to call our own, no matter how old or young you may be. It’s time to give our children an understanding of their personal space, help them establish boundaries, and let them know that they have agency over their own bodies. Consent is an empowering message for children, a gift that can protect them for the rest of their lives.

Parents can begin this practice at home, by establishing a firm expectation that friends and relatives ask their children for permission to hug, kiss, tickle, and engage in play. Parents must advocate for their child when they say no and should model consent by asking for hugs and snuggle-time – and respecting those boundaries when a child says no.

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Schools can bring consent into the classroom with clear and frequent conversations about interpersonal contact. Children should be encouraged to talk about and establish boundaries and be empowered to say no when those boundaries are pushed – by a peer or an adult.

Because consent is a part of all healthy relationships, it does not need to be taught in conjunction with sex education. Consent-empowered children will make that connection when the time comes.

Public conversations around consent need to shift to remove consent from the realm of sex-ed and bring it into context within healthy relationships so that boundaries and consent can become habits, become mundane, so when consent matters most, it comes naturally.

Teaching children consent may never fully protect them from sexual abuse, but it is a powerful tool that can equip them for a lifetime of healthy relationships.

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Kelsiann Helsley is lead educator for Power Up, Speak Out! a violence prevention program of Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, based in Red Lodge.

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