Lauren Atkins stood on the steps of the Oklahoma Capitol building with her friends and advocates, cloaked in darkness, breathing in the midnight air, wondering, "What just happened?"
On March 13, Oklahoma House Bill 1007 — “Lauren’s Law” — failed, becoming part of the third legislative session in a row to vote against preventative consent education in Oklahoma public schools.
If put into action, Lauren’s Law would have provided professional development for administrators to properly teach and discuss consent and healthy relationships and provided support to districts who want to implement it.
Atkins, the namesake of the bill and an undecided freshman at OU, was a Norman High School student in 2015 when she was raped by another student at a party. Since then, she and Stacey Wright, friend and local activist, have worked to prevent similar stories occurring to others.
Sex and consent education are not mandatory in Oklahoma public schools, while HIV/AIDS education is mandated with an emphasis on abstinence, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.
School districts decide specifically what education will be taught to their students, with an option for parents to opt their children out of the sessions, according to the report.
Wes Moody, Norman Public Schools communications specialist, said in an email that the district covers sexuality education and HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum for sixth through 12th-grade students.
“Parents also have an opportunity to preview the materials at an event held each year before the information is presented to students,” Moody said in the email. “Parents who do not want their children included in the education lessons can opt out.”
Atkins said the information currently taught to Norman students is not enough to understand how to have healthy relationships and safe sex and are not given medically accurate context of STDs and STIs.
“Abstinence being the main curriculum is just not teaching anyone anything,” Atkins said.
Without the information students need to know about their bodies, they turn to the internet, or false rumors from friends and other sources, Atkins said.
“I often hear that this type of thing should be happening in the home and the parent should be educating their child on these issues,” Wright said. “My response to that is, well generations of people in Oklahoma never got that themselves — how on Earth can they teach the next generation when they were never taught these things?”
Wright was focused on the next generation through her work on Lauren’s Law, her passion project for the last three years.
In 2017, she began to work with House Rep. Jacob Rosencrants, a Democrat representing parts of Norman and Noble, to develop the language of the bill. Since then, the two have altered the bill’s language and re-presented it in the House for the last three sessions.
The bill was rejected in the House with a vote of 56-39 in its third reading, due to a divide over the definition of the word “culture,” Wright said.
Atkins said she was shocked at the result of the vote.
“In my head the bill was just such an obvious solution to helping the problems like sexual assault, and just teaching kids early about consent and healthy relationships,” Atkins said. “I didn’t really think it was going to fail … it’s such an obvious thought to me that it had such a good solution.”
Wright said their team plans to continue with the bill in the next legislative session and will work to form language that can work across the board for all Oklahomans.
“This conversation has really been elevated in the last couple years and people are starting to understand the intersection of this type of prevention education with other issues,” Wright said. “This can have nothing but a positive impact on kids’ lives. Just teaching empathy and how to resolve conflict and help communication skills — that’s really what we’re talking about.”
Emily Nicholls, a prevention education advocate for Cleveland County, visits the public schools in the county to teach classes to students and teachers to help implement healthy relationships and sex education, she said.
Nicholls’ position is a federal position that allocates for an advocate to help facilitate updated curriculum, which is advocated for on the national level, within schools at their request. She has spent the most time at Norman High School, she said.
“We’re addressing issues that the students think are actually issues,” Nicholls said. “It’s important for us to be able to have an open dialogue because then they know that if they do experience something, there are places to go and there are people that care about them, and they know how to deal with these issues.”
Nicholls said abstinence-only education contributes to victimization and trauma from the lack of understanding important information, such as how to be safe and how consent can be rescinded at any time.
According to a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, in Oklahoma one in six male-identified individuals and one in four female-identified individuals will experience some form of sexual assault or abuse by the time they turn 18. Additionally, one in 11 high school students has experienced sexual assault in the past year.
Maggie Pool, assistant director of clinical services at Goddard Health Center, said the clinic’s health services work with Sexperts, student peer educators, to provide inclusive sexual health information to OU students.
“We see a lot of students who have only received abstinence-only education in high school,” Pool said in an email. “It really depends on what state they are from.”
In the email, Pool said research has shown that comprehensive sex education programs, which may include abstinence information as well as education on safe sex, delay sexual initiation in teens and increase the use of contraceptives.
Colleen Ozment, a senior at Norman North High School, said the sex and HIV/AIDS education she received in school was not enough information for her to understand the topics and her body.
Ozment said she, like many of her friends, turned to the internet and the news to learn about safe sex, consent, and how STDs can be transmitted.
“It was very bare-bones,” Ozment said. “It was just very focused on abstinence only — they never talked about anything else besides that … they never taught us anything about safe sex … it was a little bit a use of scare tactics.”
Ozment said she’s been aware of rapes and other forms of sexual assault among students at Norman North High School as well as Norman High School. She said her school has never formally addressed these incidents with the students and thinks further incidents could be prevented if more conversation was instigated.
“Since we never talk about it, people don't really understand what consent is,” she said. “If someone was raped, they don't know what to do. Like, who do you tell? Where do you go? … Do you call the police, or do you go to the hospital? Nobody understands what to do in that situation.”
Nicholls said there is a direct correlation between instances of sexual assault among students and abstinence-only education.
“By giving people the information about how to recognize early signs of abuse and … what boundaries are healthy, we can reduce the levels of victimization, which is going to make our society healthier overall,” Nicholls said. “It’s important that we do have these conversations because then we empower young people to have control over their lives and control over their bodies.”