Curbing sexual abuse starts with early learning

Curbing sexual abuse starts with early learning

(N.H.) As colleges and universities across the country struggle to deal with what appear to be large numbers of sexual assaults and incidents of dating violence, efforts to stem the tide are focusing more on reaching students well before they ever set foot on a post-secondary campus.

In fact, some experts are looking to provide preventative education in elementary, middle and high school health curriculums.

“We start with kindergarten but occasionally there are even day care centers in this area that might have us come in,” said Betsy Haley, program manager at Portsmouth’s Sexual Assault Support Services, which provides a comprehensive, age-appropriate prevention education program for multiple schools in its two-county region.

“From our point of view you need to start right when they’re young, in the early ages, because by the time they get up to middle school and high school they don’t have that foundation of knowledge and then you’re really having to sort of back out of what our culture has already taught them,” she said.

In the wake of numerous high profile sexual assaults on college campuses in recent years, the Obama administration has heightened its review of how these institutions handle such claims. It has been widely reported that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating 94 postsecondary institutions for possible violations of federal law over their handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Some states have convened task forces to study  the problem while some lawmakers have sought fixes in law such as clarifying  the term “consent” and requirements that universities notify outside law enforcement agencies when a complaint is made.

Last fall, California became the first state in the nation to enact a law defining sexual consent between two people as “an affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”

Some of the proposed legal remedies, however, are often controversial. Even victim advocates sometimes argue against mandatory reporting requirements because such laws could take away a victim’s rights in deciding how she wants to proceed.

For these reasons, more and more groups are looking to make the K-12 system the launching pad to cultural changes in how sexual assault and dating violence is viewed.

In February, prompted by a University of Virginia student organization called One Less, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced the Teach Safe Relationships Act in the U.S. Senate. The bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to require lessons on appropriate behavior in sexual and domestic relationships as part of already required K-12 health or sex education courses.

The bill defines safe relationship behavior curriculum as “age-appropriate education that promotes safe relationships and teaches students to recognize and prevent physical and emotional relationship abuse, including teen and adolescent dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual violence and sexual harassment.”

The proposal would also provide grants for the training of secondary school educators.

The idea, One Less members say, is to educate middle and high school students about healthy relationships before they get to college, where it is estimated that one in five women will be sexually assaulted.

But Betsy Haley, the Portsmouth, N.H., Sexual Assault Support Services program director who says efforts to combat the problem should begin much earlier, has statistics on her side that prove middle and secondary schools are not immune to numerous incidents of assault involving students.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 30 percent of female rape victims were first raped between the ages of 11 to 17. And the Justice Department has reported that nearly 20 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.

A 1990 study shows that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.

Through its Safe Kids Strong Teens education program, Haley’s Sexual Assault Support Services takes its interactive curriculum into K-12 classrooms throughout Stafford and Rockingham counties.

Younger students through grade four learn personal body safety and boundary setting, often through the use of puppet shows that engage them in age-appropriate discussions.

In grade five, Internet and technology safety is introduced, followed by lessons on sexual harassment and bullying in sixth grade. Students learn to decipher differences in behavior and what constitutes flirting, for example, as opposed to harassment.

As the educational program moves through middle school, students are taught about the influence of media messaging in terms of acceptable behavior. They participate in the program’s CARE series – learning about Consent, Awareness, Respect and Empathy.

High schoolers review various hypothetical scenarios to understand the concepts of ‘victim blaming’ and ‘responsibility versus poor choice.’ They also review state law in the areas of sexual assault and age-of-consent, said Haley.

“Consent is a big one. We’re finding, unfortunately, that students really don’t know what that means,” she said. “Our goal is that the students learn affirmative consent, meaning making sure that everybody is in agreement and you’re getting a yes all around.”

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