by Marni Kostman
Recent data shows nearly 4,000 reported incidents of sexual battery and over 800 rapes and attempted rapes occurring in our nation’s public high schools. By high school graduation, more than one in ten girls will have been physically forced to have sex; when these young women get to college, the number rises to 20%. Women and girls, however, are not alone in this phenomenon as 6% of undergraduate men report similar sexual victimization. Sexual violence often negatively impacts education, job performance, future earnings, physical and psychological health, and sometimes serves as a catalyst for unhealthy relationship patterns in the future. These negative consequences impact the individual victims and their loved ones, as well as our society’s entire pool of human resources.
On April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter responding to the dire situation of campus sexual violence. The letter details for the first time how the education system should handle sexual violence as part of the Title IX requirements of gender equity in schools. It recognizes that sexual violence interferes with student achievement academically and personally, and holds that under Title IX – a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education – discrimination includes sexual violence. The letter gave formal guidelines for schools, such as disseminating a notice of nondiscrimination, designating at least one employee to coordinate Title IX compliance and responsibilities, and adopting grievance procedures for prompt and fair resolution of complaints.
While these formal steps are important, it is my opinion that more informal prevention measures are the most crucial to a safe educational environment and effective response to sexual violence.
Formal guidelines and efficient response procedures are needed and encouraged by the VP leadership, the departments of education and justice, and organizations working on sexual violence; but we need to see schools investing in prevention education, social norms changes, and engaging men. The “Dear Colleague” letter suggests a holistic framework responding to sexual violence, including comprehensive victim services and counseling, academic support and escort services, and employee training on how to deal with allegations of sexual violence. At the same time, there are no suggestions for preventing sexual violence. The training for staff is on how to respond to incidents that have already occurred, and suggested educational resources only address the aftermath of a violent incident. While all of this is useful, it doesn’t help to end the culture of violence in schools that leads to the high statistics mentioned above.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month; I propose that schools start educating students about how to prevent sexual violence now, and carry on this programming throughout the year. In his speech at the University of New Hampshire, Vice President Biden called on students to prevent sexual violence:
“These are your friends, these are your classmates, the people you study with. You need to watch out for each other. You are the first – and best – line of defense…The more and more you bring attention to the issue, the less and less the behavior goes unnoticed, unreported and unpunished, and the more and more attitudes begin to change.”
We can start to change attitudes by raising awareness about the frequency and the consequences of sexual violence among teens. Schools can hold workshops on the dangers of sexual violence, the importance of healthy relationships, and the value of equality regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Youth should be fully involved in these workshops, which should be interactive and provide them with real tools to prevent or handle sexual violence before it escalates. They should also learn the importance of looking out for their peers.
Furthermore, schools must promote policies that don’t blame the victim. Students may not want to look out for themselves or each other if they fear that the school will allow retaliation from classmates, will not provide confidentiality, will force them to press charges, or will retaliate itself with disciplinary proceedings in cases where drugs or alcohol are involved. It is important, here, to have staff who are sensitive to students and perhaps to have a student leader or youth committee to turn to in dealing with sexual assault if institutional problems arise.
Getting youth involved is key in preventing sexual violence; the ways to engage them are infinite. High schools could hold contests during homecoming or spirit week to raise money for a sexual assault crisis line. Sports coaches and club supervisors could talk to their athletes/members about respecting their partners and obtaining consent, as well as looking out for their peers inside and outside of school. Relatable youth speakers and peer advocates can speak in a health class or a student health fair. Men can be set up with mentors or engaged in programs that teach non-violent masculinity, and also raise awareness that men may be victims too. Self-defense can be taught in gym class. Teachers should recognize that students may drink or do drugs on the weekend and – while this should be prevented in other ways – the same students need to be taught about how to minimize harm and prevent date rape. Most importantly, we should turn to the students themselves for ideas on how to prevent sexual assault: solutions that speak to them and are relevant to their community.