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Ali Muldrow encouraged district staff members to "be ambitious and bold" in developing consent-based education as part of the human growth and development curriculum.

Teaching about consent is among the focuses as the Madison School District moves to a “skills-based” human growth and development curriculum.

The new curriculum was developed out of three meetings of an advisory committee that included students, parents, clergy and district staff members last year. The group came up with a mission and vision statement, curriculum recommendations and priorities for implementation.

In the elementary grades, that focus on consent includes learning outcomes, starting with listening to and demonstrating “respect for individual needs and wants of others, including boundaries for personal space” in kindergarten and building up to demonstrating “effective communication skills including active consent and refusal skills in relation to sexual behavior” by the end of fifth grade.

School Board members praised the changes Monday at an Instruction Work Group meeting, but also pushed district staff to go further — from looking at the dress code to providing free menstrual products for students and staff. Board member Ali Muldrow offered praise specifically for the focus on consent, which has been implemented from 4K through fifth grade so far.

“We would support you wholeheartedly in anything you want to do to make sure kids understand how to navigate informed consent and understand the rights to their bodies,” said Muldrow. “Please be ambitious and bold.”

The consent education is outlined in the district’s policy guides for this school year, along with the specific outcomes expected for topic areas like allyship and understanding bodies. District wellness and physical education coordinator Ashley Riley said she hopes the committee will reconvene during second semester of this year to add consent-focused language for grades 6-12.

Last year, the committee established six priority areas for human growth and development education: updating the curriculum, inclusivity for all students, professional development for staff, access to the information for all students, access to school and community resources and communication tools for families. Riley said skills like interpersonal communication, decision making and goal setting are worked on in the classroom.

“So that students are practicing the skills necessary, not just talking about what certain things are or mean,” Riley said.

Muldrow took issue with language in the presentation, citing “age appropriate” content, suggesting the district instead focus on “developmentally appropriate” information — a distinction the district officials presenting said they appreciated.

“One 6-year-old can be in a very different place than another 6-year-old in terms of what’s developmentally appropriate,” she said. “They have a body and they use it and they should be able to reference it and also be able to talk confidently with the way other people come into contact with their bodies.”

Student board representative Anika Sanyal asked staff to ensure the online health class, which is an option for high school students to complete the half-credit required for graduation, include lessons on consent and more information on who Title IX officers are and where to report sexual assaults. Riley said the district is in the process of developing its own online health course that will meet the standards rather than using an outside company. She expects that course to be in place next school year.

Sanyal and Muldrow also both suggested providing menstrual products in school buildings, with Muldrow suggesting every school be included since there are staff members who could use it.

“I do think that we can be pretty honest and admit that the majority of our workforce is adult folks who identify as fem or women, and exposing children to menstrual products throughout their entire life is OK,” Muldrow said.

The dress code is another area for improvement, Muldrow and board member Ananda Mirilli said. Student and staff support executive director Jay Affeldt said the dress code was updated in the new Behavior Education Plan this year based on input from students, and he believed there were “significant improvements” through that process.

“We landed on a policy that is much better than it was,” he said.

Mirilli and Muldrow said it seems female-identifying students and students of color were the most targeted and disciplined by dress codes. Affeldt said data is hard to come by, as many interactions around the dress code are informal, and suggested that having conversations with students is the best way to learn about how the rules are implemented.

The code allows for some flexibility among schools, which Muldrow said is a “complex issue” that “requires all of us to be thoughtful and not necessarily presumptive.”

“To have the adults around you kind of policing your clothes or policing the way your clothes fit as you grow can create an unnecessary strain in terms of learning or additional self-consciousness,” Muldrow said.

Riley said district staff work to incorporate human growth and development lessons into other content areas in elementary school, though it can vary from school to school depending on what outside resources are available to help or when a school nurse can visit various classrooms.

Board member Cris Carusi also encouraged staff to consider ways to inform parents about what is being taught beyond the policy guides, mentioning the idea of incorporating it into back-to-school nights, though Muldrow expressed concern about student privacy and about how some parents might “police” the gender or sexuality of other children.

“How I learned human growth and development is really different than how we’re teaching it right now. Nobody in my generation got consent-based sex ed,” Carusi said. “Let’s get the whole family involved, let’s get the whole community involved.” 

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Scott Girard is the local k-12 education reporter at the Cap Times. A Madison native, he joined the paper in 2019 after working for six years for Unified Newspaper Group. Follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.