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Three Ways Schools Can Help Prevent Sexual Assault

Help kindergarteners brainstorm a list of things they need to ask permission for––borrowing a toy, eating someone’s French fry, giving a friend a hug––and role-play asking for permission.

Have students identify a trusted adult they can turn to if someone disrespects their personal space.

Offer parents a set of easy activities they can do with their children to develop values of consent, communication, and body awareness at home.

These are all parts of the kindergarten curriculum that Susan Moen, the executive director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), has implemented in the organization’s sexual assault prevention program.

Running in six school districts across Jackson County, Oregon,  the program works with students from kindergarten to 12th grade on topics including consent, empathy, personal space, boundaries, reporting and intervention, healthy relationships, online safety, peer pressure, and gender norms. Moen also serves on the advisory board of Stop Sexual Assault In Schools, the organization that started the #MeTooK12 campaign.

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PSA posters created by juniors at Ashland High School in Jackson County, Oregon following their sexual assault prevention unit.

As, America's Promise recently covered, sexual assault in K-12 schools is alarmingly pervasive. The CDC estimates that by the age of 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been sexually abused.

In 2015, Oregon state legislature mandated that schools adopt comprehensive child sexual abuse prevention curricula. Currently, some two dozen states are considering legislation to incorporate some form of sexual assault prevention into K-12 curricula.

As support for sexual assault prevention gains traction across the country, Moen and other experts highlighted three strategies that have proven effective: Start teaching students about consent early, empower them to find solutions through intervention, and include parents in the conversation.

Start Early, Because College May Be “Entirely Too Late”

While some might say kindergarten is too early to start talking about consent, Moen disagrees.

“If you start in kindergarten with these kids, then it’s just natural,” Moen said. “When we start in the older grades, we actually have to ask people to change behavior that has been ingrained in them by their culture. And that’s harder.”

University of Illinois Professor Paul Schewe agrees. “Our dating education and sexual assault prevention education needs to occur before and during puberty,” said Schewe, who studies violence prevention. “That’s when those beliefs and values and ideas get set. College, where most of our prevention efforts have been focused for the last 30 years, is probably entirely too late.”

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Schewe’s research suggests that interventions have a greater impact earlier, when attitudes, ideas, and values still developing.

Maddy Eichenberg, a student at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, is working with her school’s administration to include more consent education in health class.

“People always say students in high school or middle school or elementary school are too young to learn about sex or any kind of sexual interaction, but it’s happening,” she told the New York Times. “Middle and high schoolers are going to be in situations where they’ll have to decide for themselves if they’re comfortable.”

Equip Students to Take Action as Bystanders

Though teaching consent early is important, Schewe says educators run the risk of dividing children into potential victims and perpetrators—and since most kids don’t expect to ever be either one, it can keep them from taking consent education seriously.

Bystander Intervention programs work to break patterns of sexual assault by teaching bystanders to step in when they see harmful situations developing, creating a sense of shared responsibility. These programs, advocates say, reframe the cultural context; instead of dividing student populations into potential victims and perpetrators, they teach students that every person has an ability and an obligation to build a healthy environment.

Take Green Dot, a program started in 2006 at University of Kentucky, which wants to change cultures of sexual violence by training students how to identify potentially harmful situations and take direct action. A 2017 study found that high schools implementing the Green Dot program experienced a 50 percent reduction in frequency of sexual violence committed by high schoolers.

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“[Bystander intervention programs] give room for everybody to participate in sexual assault prevention,” said Schewe. “[They give] everyone a seat at the table without feeling defensive.”

In other words, they empower young people to be the solution rather than the problem. “The goal is to help kids be the agents of change,” said Moen. “[They] themselves are going to change their own culture, to the point where consent is the norm, bystanders step in, and everybody’s job is to make sure victims feel like they can come forward and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Enlist Parents to Extend Lessons Beyond the Classroom

In addition to student empowerment, a key piece of Jackson County SART’s strategy involves getting parents on board. Parents can reinforce student learning outside the classroom and help facilitate the larger cultural changes to which prevention programs like SART aspire.

That’s why SART runs a parent night before the program starts. The goal is to invite parents to participate in the prevention process and to ask them to build environments outside of school where students can practice the skills they learn.

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“When we teach this stuff to kids, we have to make sure that the staff and the parents and the community are coming along with it,” said Moen. “Along with teaching kids that they have a voice and the right to have control over their own lives, we have to then teach the parents and the adults to allow the kids to have that kind of control.”

It’s also an opportunity for parents to raise any concerns they might have. But once parents understand the scope and severity of sexual assault, Moen said, they’re eager to help.

“[Your work] really means a lot to me and my kids,” reads one message that Moen received from the parent of a teenage boy:

“It's something I've been trying to open up and talk with them about––but it can be hard sometimes for them. But something in the way you presented and taught caught his attention (and all his friends mind you) and now he wants to have open conversations about sexual assault, harassment, sex in general, everything.”