Owning the Issue: McKinley High students speak up about sexual harassment

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When many adults think of educating youth for the prevention of sexual violence, they think of one-shot presentations or multi-session curricula targeted at youth. Yet best practices tell us that a single dose of education isn’t enough to change attitudes or behavior, and even multiple educational sessions targeted at youth are insufficient on their own for producing the necessary institutional and cultural change that would result in decreased perpetration of sexual violence.

In addition to educating youth, it is necessary to educate adults who are responsible for the environments in which young people are learning and growing. Ultimately, the goals of education and increased awareness should be to inspire and support institutional leaders in:

  • Understanding what constitutes sexual violence, and incorporating this understanding into positive expectations for behavior.
  • Ensuring policies and practices that hold offenders accountable for sexual violence perpetration.
  • Creating a community that is safe and supportive for those who have experienced sexual violence.

At STAR, with our limited resources for prevention work, we have been examining how to better engage in youth education and development activities that will result in meaningful, positive change.

This spring, as STAR’s Director of Prevention, I was invited to mentor a student group in McKinley High’s “ELA Amped” course. In this class, students identified common issues through storytelling and formed groups in which to conduct “participatory action research projects” on their issues. The underlying theory of this class is that “teachers can learn, and learners can teach,” and that students have expertise rooted in their lived experiences that can be applied to addressing problems in their communities.

The STAR Jr. group, as they came to call themselves, identified sexual harassment as a key issue many of their peers had faced, and as a problem in their school. (Note: sexual harassment is a problem in all schools, not just at McKinley High.)

Over the course of the spring semester, I met with the group, provided them with resources to deepen their understanding of the issue, and facilitated discussion that encouraged critical thought related to its prevention. They learned that sexual harassment:

  • Exists on a continuum of sexual violence.
  • Can cause trauma, collectively and over time.
  • Can function as a trigger and a threat for those who have experienced more severe forms of sexual abuse, which exacerbates trauma symptoms and functions as a barrier to recovery.
  • Contributes to creating an unsafe environment in which more severe forms of sexual violation are also tolerated and even condoned.
  • Is the product of a culture in which lack of regard for consent and lack of respect for sexual boundaries are the norm.

For their research project, they conducted surveys and focus groups with their peers and classmates about sexual harassment at school. For their action component, they created flyers, banners, and a pledge to raise awareness and encourage action on the issue among their peers.

Last Friday, May 8, they presented their research and findings at a research forum organized by their phenomenal ELA Amped teachers, Anna West and Destiny Cooper.

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The members of this group, who will be seniors next year, are passionate about what they’ve learned and are optimistic that they CAN make change by educating their peers and holding school staff and administration accountable for taking sexual harassment seriously. Their motto? “Inform, Educate, Advocate.”

To illustrate the importance of adults becoming educated about the issue, one of their teachers recently informed me of an instance where she intervened when a student was failing to respect another’s boundaries of personal space. She helped him become more aware of what he was doing and how to do things differently by asking for consent, reminding him that “anything other than an enthusiastic ‘yes’ is a ‘no.'” She attributed her ability to take action in a constructive way to what she had learned by supporting the research and action of the STAR Jr. group.

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This is exactly the kind of change we need and can create through partnerships with schools, and we at STAR are grateful to have had the opportunity to partner with such an innovative and empowering class as ELA Amped.

More good news is that such messages and actions can be applied in any class and school. To learn about resources for students and educators related to the prevention of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in the school setting, contact prevention@brstar.org. Be the solution! Partner with us to inform, educate, and advocate for positive change wherever you are.

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