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Sex Ed Class Tackles Harassment and the #MeToo Movement

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Students in Michelle Boire's classroom at Mid-Peninsula High School can ask questions about anything, anonymously, and slip them in this box. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

Near the front door of Michelle Boire's classroom in Menlo Park sits a box, where students can ask questions about anything, anonymously.

Boire teaches sex ed as part of her Life Skills class at Mid-Peninsula High School, and she's found the box offers students a way to ask the ask questions they might be afraid to ask out loud.

The other day, Boire received a question that's been weighing heavy on her mind. She reads aloud to her class, made up high school seniors.

"To what events do you need a verbal yes as consent?"

Boire had already planned to have this talk with her students about sexual harassment next quarter. But this question -- and the non-stop news about sexual harassment and abuse over the last few weeks -- has pushed the discussion to now.

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"They know that it's wrong and they're very able to say, 'What that guy did was horrible,'" says Boire. "But I have taught students where they didn't even know sexual harassment was a thing."

Even if they do understand, says Boire, most don’t understand the nuances, and how sexual harassment can play out. She poses a follow up question to the class:

"Does anyone want to share what consent is or why consent is important?"

Eighteen-year-old Ian DeTreville is the first to answer.

"Most people say yes but you can also tell if they're reluctant and then you should probably not," he says.

"Yeah," says Boire. "But how do you tell? Is it the tone of their voice, or body language?" she presses.

"Yeah, it's a lot of body language and language cues honestly," DeTreville continues. "Because in everyday life, most people will say something and then they could possibly mean something else."

Boire says this back and forth about the nuances of human interaction is one of the most important parts of sex education. But for generations it's been one of the most overlooked.

"It was literally you know, anatomy, physiology, STIs. And that was it," says Boire.

California has recently become known as a leader for teaching beyond the basics. Three years ago the state passed the Healthy Youth Act, which requires educators teach about topics like sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The curriculum Boire follows goes a step further, asking to students discuss these topics with loved ones at home.

"And the kids hate it but in the end they realize it wasn't that bad," Boire says. "And parents love it, they really open up to their kids."

In class, these conversations also drift into the grey areas. Take for example, what happens later in class, when Boire puts two signs up across the room. One says "Disagree." The other says "Agree." She poses a series of questions, and has the students move from one side to the other based on their stance.

"Sending unwanted, explicit text messages is a form of sexual harassment. Agree or disagree?"

"It's not a big deal to me anymore honestly," says 18-year-old DeTreville.

"You feel it's normalized?" asks Boire.

DeTreville responds. "It just happens so often, you just get over it and move on."

But 17-year-old senior Allyson Huelsenkamp argues it is harmful. Most, aren’t asking for it.

"The other person is doing it without your consent so it's not really agreeable," she says.

Boire will likely have this kind of conversation a few more times this year.

"You know, I can't protect them," she says. "I can't be there all the time, but I can definitely start to give them tools on how to work with this and give them outlets for this information."

That is, tools to make informed decisions about what’s OK -- and what’s not.

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