Consent Summit Helps Educate Students from Across the Country

Participants gather in the Forum. Photo by Shaila Joshi.

Roughly four hundred students, teachers, administrators and parents from 22 schools across the country signed up for the seventh annual Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent, which took place on Nov. 18 and 19. It was the first time GDS held the summit in person since 2019. 

The summit kicked off on the night of Friday, Nov. 18 with a screening of the documentary Roll Red Roll, a movie about a town in Ohio’s response to an assault at a local high school. The viewing was followed by a discussion led by sexual education teacher and activist Justine Ang Fonte.

The Saturday session began with a survivor panel moderated by seniors Asha Adiga-Biro, Jaia Wilensky and Anna Khoury. The students asked prepared questions to four survivors of sexual assault.

Afterward, participants met in small cohorts to reflect on what they each wanted to learn during the summit ahead of its first workshop. The majority of the programming consisted of three hour-long workshops facilitated by teaching and advocates from across the country as well as GDS students and teachers.

Junior Max Froomkin attended a workshop led by Director of Student Life and Wellness Bobby Asher called “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault and Trauma.” Froomkin said that Asher addressed misconceptions about consent and that he related experiences of sexual assault to neuroscience. For example, Asher talked about “why people’s memory of traumatic events, including sexual assaults, can seem fragmented,” Froomkin said.

This year’s summit was the first open to GDS middle schoolers. Eighth graders Joy Edwards and Maimouna Barry decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Both Barry and Edwards attended a workshop about how survivors seek out justice after an assault. Barry emphasized the importance of starting consent education at a young age.

The day concluded with a keynote address by social science researchers Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan on their book Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus. The talk focused on how power dynamics impact sex on college campuses and can lead to assault. According to Hirsch and Khan, tackling sexual assault at colleges requires a “public health” approach that centers around education and addresses social dynamics that lead to unconsentual encounters.

Froomkin said that he learned from the talk the ways in which community members should work to address interactions with one another when responding to reports of sexual assault. “We aren’t necessarily addressing culture as a whole when we address individual incidents,” he said.

This year’s summit was organized by seniors Mackenzie Williams, Andrew Burke and Elsa Cutler for an independent study, a self-directed course that the school offers as a replacement for a traditional class. Leigh Tate and Michelle McKeever, the director and program associate of Community Engagement and Experiential Learning, respectively, served as faculty advisors.

Last year’s summit was also organized by a group of students as their independent study. Many aspects of the summit have remained the same since it was first organized in 2016, including the survivor panel and some of the presenters.

However, this year, Williams said, organizers specifically wanted the summit “to be inclusive of individuals of color and LGBTQ+ individuals and individuals of multiple genders.” Williams said it was their goal because the narrative of sexual assault often centers around women, and particularly white women.

Williams said the organizers worked proactively to invite speakers from a broad range of backgrounds, coordinating with GDS’ office of diversity, equity and inclusion.

For example, Williams invited Dr. Rodney Glasgow, the head of Sandy Spring Friends School, whom she had heard speak at another inter-school conference. Williams wanted to incorporate Glasgow’s perspective as a Black gay man and found his voice “so impactful.” Glasgow led a session titled “Black Bodies, Blurred Boundaries: The Sexuality of Racism.”

Ultimately, 67 different speakers led workshops, and attendees were from a variety of educational backgrounds, with different levels of previous consent and sex-education. Some of the schools that participants came from frame their curricula around the risks of sex, and others don’t have sex-education curricula at all.

Attendees came from D.C.-area private schools, including Maret, Gonzaga College High School, Bullis and Landon, as well as private and charter schools from across the country. Other schools in attendance included The Northwest School in Washington state, William Penn Charter School in Pennsylvania, Porter Gaud School in South Carolina and Breck School in Minnesota. 

Cutler reached out to administrators and counselors at other schools to invite them to the summit; several students who attended said they heard about the summit from administrators at their schools.

The small cohort discussion that senior Sarah Leary led included students from Seattle, New York and Pennsylvania. She noted that many students at the summit came from schools with abstinence-based educational models, which were often Catholic or all-boys schools.

Kinari Pierce is the community service coordinator and a history teacher at Saint Albans School in D.C. Saint Albans’ health class is an elective, not a required course, and Pierce identified gaps in the school’s sex-education and consent-education curriculum.

She said that discussions about consent at her school happen infrequently and do not include much instruction other than to “make good choices.” Pierce wishes that students could instead engage in deeper conversations about consent similar to the ones she has seen at the summit. 

Teddy Palmore, a senior at Saint Albans, agreed that he has not learned enough about sexual assault and consent at school. For him, attending the summit was about developing his “allyship.” He said he was moved by what he heard during the survivor panel and wanted “to learn how to listen and respond” when he hears stories of sexual assault.

Froomkin said that GDS has a more comprehensive sex-education curriculum than many of the schools at the summit, according to students he spoke to. He thought that his health class did a good job of teaching about consent. But, he added, “there’s always room for work to be done.”

Other students from schools with more comprehensive sex-education were motivated by their school culture. Adriana Lewis, a student at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, New York, heard about the summit from an email from her guidance counselor. She decided to go because she believed that her school’s social scene did not promote healthy relationships, and she was against the “hook up” culture at her school.

The summit was an opportunity for students with “different demographics, different lived lives, different education systems” to be able to talk about “something that they may not get to” otherwise, Williams said.