Building a Culture of Consent in High School

Photo is part of the "Fraternity House" series, by artist Violet Overn, a recent New York University graduate, is a sharp reminder that one in five women are sexuall assaulted in college.
This photo, part of the “Fraternity House” series by artist Violet Overn, serves as a sharp reminder that sexual assault is prevalent on college and high school campuses.

The start of the school year and the recent conviction and sentencing of Owen Labrie to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old make it particularly important to get out messages about sexual assault on campuses. In Labrie’s case, the sentence is not justice. It does not hold him accountable. It does not send a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault; and it does not serve to keep our communities – and girls – safe. As students across the country head back to school, the words of Jenna Schulman, our youth blogger, are an important reminder.

Sexual assault is not just an issue for adults or students in college, it is also an issue for teens in high school. Studies show that one in five women and one in six men are assaulted during their lifetimes. Forty four percent of these victims are less than 18 years old.

This summer, I took part in a program at my high school, Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., to investigate the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level. The object of the program was for us to learn more about the issue and then create a program in our school and for the larger community to address it.

We spent the first two weeks of the project getting educated about the issue of sexual assault and consent. We met with stakeholders based in the DC- metropolitan area, including government officials, advocates, survivors of sexual assault and social service providers. Following these meetings, I struggled to understand how such a small program, like ours, might offer any meaningful help. Initially, I looked at these traumas as if the only solution was to create policies by going through state and federal government. However, my perspective changed. The HRC advocates talked to us about how creating a culture shift, one step at a time, at the grassroots level, could help prevent sexual assaults. A culture shift would include three major components. First, it is important to develop universal definitions of what it means to give affirmative consent and what it means to be sexually harassed or assaulted.  It is important to minimize ambiguity sensibly. Second, the conversation about consent needs to be expanded and geared toward younger children. This does not mean that we should be educating our six year olds about how to have sex. Rather,  it means that we should be educating six year olds about boundaries and what it means to say yes and no. Third, we need to be much more open to believing survivors. Sexual assault is one the crimes where a survivor is too often seen as guilty until proven innocent.

We spent the second two weeks of the program trying to move from policy to action – thinking about ways to affect a culture shift in the DC high school community. As a first step, we decided to host a summit addressing sexual assault and consent for all area high schools. The summit will take place on Saturday, November 19, at Georgetown Day School.  The goal of the summit is to begin a conversation within the high school community about how to address sexual assault and how to create a consent culture. The event will have breakout sessions led by advocates, policy makers, educators, and survivors.

I feel very fortunate that my school gave students, like me, the opportunity this summer to address the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level.  I appreciated that they let us “own” the issue, and think through it ourselves. The program has changed my perspective on how I perceive sexual assault – allowing me to understand even more how it affects teenagers in high school (and not just those in college).  It also provided me with a greater sense of urgency that change has to happen and that we cannot remain complacent about the issue.

I encourage other school districts and teens from around the country to begin conversations of their own, within their schools and with friends and family about the seriousness of sexual assault and the importance generating a culture shift. It really begins with you and we can together create positive change.

By youth blogger Jenna Schulman, a tenth grade student in Washington, D.C. 

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