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To Prevent Sexual Assault, Schools And Parents Start Lessons Early

A growing number of states are now mandating some sort of education around sexual assault in public schools.
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A growing number of states are now mandating some sort of education around sexual assault in public schools.

If colleges are a hunting ground, as they've been called, for sexual predators, advocates say that high schools are the breeding ground — and that any solution must start there. They say efforts at college are too little, too late.

The push for earlier intervention is coming from a wide range of voices, including student survivors, law enforcement officials — and New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft.

"I have a couple granddaughters in college, and, y'know, I'm just thinking, holy mackerel — let's get to the root of it," Kraft told an audience of hundreds of high school students and teachers at Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts.

With a half-million dollars — and his team's star power — Kraft has teamed up with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to launch Game Change: The Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership. In its first year, some 90 Massachusetts high schools have been trained to run a dating violence prevention program called Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP).

"It's about respect and listening," Kraft said in his speech. "We have to make this cool."

Many students were starstruck by Kraft and the big-name players who were helping to boost the program.

"You talk about cool, yeah, that's as cool as it gets," gushed Danny Ryan, a junior at Lincoln Sudbury High School.

MVP teaches teens about healthy relationships, how to spot risky ones, and how to intervene to help another student out of a jam. Recent Lincoln Sudbury grad Otto Zaccardo says the training has already enabled him to do that for a friend.

"That could have been the next situation," he says. "But it was stopped and taken care of ... and, in her words, changed this young woman's life and just made all the difference."

Getting Started Early

High-profile cases of sexual assault — from elite prep schools to public middle and high schools — have underscored the problem in younger grades. Close to 100 elementary and secondary schools are now being investigated for their alleged mishandling of sexual assault allegations — 2.5 times the number a year ago.

Zaccardo says attitudes need to be adjusted when kids are young.

"It starts to be part of your culture," he says. "So by the time you get to college, it's second nature, it's already hardwired into our brain."

"Absolutely, college is just way too late," says Paul Schewe ,a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago who studies violence prevention.

Even within high school, he says, programs are less effective each passing year. What works well on ninth-graders, for example, has only one-third the impact on 12th-graders.

"It just makes sense when kids go through puberty, that's when their ideas about sex and beliefs and behaviors are forming, so that's really a critical period," Schewe says.

The conversation really should start even younger, he says.

Indeed, Kate Rohdenburg, who runs a violence prevention program for a group called WISE in Vermont and New Hampshire, says even 5- and 6-year-olds can be taught basic principles of boundaries and autonomy.

"Of course, we're not saying the word 'autonomous' to kindergartners," she explains. "But we talk about who here likes hugs, and some kids raise their hand and some don't. Well, how are we supposed to know if this person wants a hug when they're feeling sad or not? And kindergartners will tell you that you should ask them."

Educating Everyone

A growing number of states are now mandating some sort of education around sexual assault in public schools. Nine passed new laws in the past year and a half, bringing the total to about 25. Nationally, a law encourages it — but does not mandate.

"I would like it to move more over into 'you have to do it,' " says the law's co-sponsor, Tim Kaine, a Virginia senator and the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. "Look, there's traditional skittishness about sex ed in the K-12 system."

Kevin Fox, a former Massachusetts high school counselor, says he was forced to resign after criticizing his school's handling of sexual assault allegations.

"I think schools, in dealing with situations like this, are probably where colleges were 10 to 15 years ago," Fox says.

He argues that high schools are not only missing the best window of opportunity to curb the problem, but by failing to act, they are actually exacerbating it.

"I think these kids go off to college and [they say], 'You know, I got away with it once, I can get away with it again,' " Fox says. "It's a classic dynamic that occurs."

Don't Blame The Victim

As long as the problem persists, some schools say one of the most important and effective approach to prevention is to train girls in self-defense.

Many advocates bristle at the female focus, saying that putting the onus on women to fend off an attack is a kind of victim blaming. But in Watertown, Mass., where self-defense is one of three different programs in place, school superintendent Jean Fitzgerald says the approach must be part of the solution.

"We're trying to make sure that the girls don't become a victim," Fitzgerald says. "We're not blaming the victims, and there's nothing wrong with teaching someone how to keep yourself safe."

"It's a challenging question, because I'm a parent also," concedes Debra Robbin from the violence prevention group Jane Doe Inc.

While policymakers, Robbin says, can't send girls the message that it's on them to stop sexual assault — whether by fighting back, drinking less or anything else — she says ultimately the answer is different for parents.

"A public health strategy looks at who is perpetrating, and that's really where our efforts need to be," Robbin says. "But what you're gonna tell your child is a different thing. Of course we want to say those things."

And increasingly, parents are. Regardless of how much schools address the issue, more parents are taking it upon themselves to keep their sons and daughters from becoming victims or perpetrators.

Parents In The Conversation

Some parents say they're no longer just stammering through the birds and the bees. Rather, they're struggling through much more fraught and nuanced conversations about sexual assault.

"I don't want my son to be one of those guys, and I don't want my daughter to be one of those victims, so I'll do what I have to do," says Kasie Hudson of Frederick County, Va.

Hudson is disappointed that her kids' public school doesn't tackle the issue of sexual assault at all.

Only about half of states require some sort of sexual assault prevention education — and most that do usually steer clear of some of the thorniest issues, like what counts as consent.

"I think it's kind of a cop-out to just say, well, parents should be handling this," Hudson says. "But I guess I'm going to need to do this myself."

Hudson says that she improvised a bit, and then got some help from videos she found online. Like one that tells teens to imagine that instead of asking about consent for sex, they're asking about a cup of tea.

"You say, 'Hey, would you like a cup of tea?' " the video begins. And if the person offers an enthusiastic "Yeah!" then bring it, the video explains. If not, then don't.

The video, produced by Blue Seat Studios, continues through several other scenarios, like what to do if someone wavers about having tea, or — somewhat absurdly — if you're offering tea to someone who's unconscious.

"You should just put the tea down," the video implores. "Unconscious people don't want tea!"

"It was cute and funny, and my 13-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed it," Hudson says.

Hudson wondered how big of an impression the video actually made but was heartened when, about a year later, they were talking about the Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted a woman who'd passed out after a party.

"And my son goes, 'If the person is passed out, they don't want tea!' I knew it had sunken in," Hudson recalls.

Acknowledging Boundaries

Experts say the sooner parents broach the subject the better. College, they say, is usually way too late. Laura Rice, a mother of three who works at one of WISE's sexual violence prevention and survivor advocacy programs in New Hampshire, agrees.

"I think it's reasonable to think that parents, even when they have babies or toddlers, they start using language like, 'I'm going to change your diaper now. Is that OK with you?' " Rice says. "Obviously it's OK, but it's reinforcing the concept of consent really from a very early age."

"Boundaries are something that kids understand and talk about," says Nan Stein, a violence prevention researcher at Wellesley College.

She says it's best to cast the conversation with young kids in terms of their right to draw their own lines.

"This is about your entitlement to declare boundaries," Stein says. "This is not about sex. This isn't deciding whether to go to first base, second base or however it's formulated."

Who Has The Talk?

Many parents, gathered recently for their sons' town league baseball game just west of Boston, say that is exactly what they're doing.

"You know, you can't be too careful," says Louise McCarthy, a mom and a lawyer. "Part of the problem is consent is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you think she's consenting to something, but she's legally not able to, and she might go home and tell her mother, and then they might go to the police and you might go to jail."

"As a mother of three boys, I worry about that," offers Tammy Hobbs, who says she warns her oldest, who's 15, to never mix drinking and sex.

"I worry that he could make a mistake," she says. "I worry that even if he didn't think he was making a mistake, that he could later be accused of having made a mistake."

Suzanne Freudberg hadn't yet broached the topic with her sons, who are 13 and 19.

"Good thing you're talking to me; I should probably have some sort of conversation with them," she says.

But she did talk about it with her 19-year-old daughter — for example, during the trial of a prep school student who sexually assaulted a girl in an out-of-the-way mechanical room.

"Y'know, what did the girl think she was going up there to do?" Freudberg says she told her daughter. She also says she warned her not to put herself "in situations where you're leaving yourself vulnerable."

Teaching Reflex

That's a tricky one for many parents to navigate. No one wants to suggest that where their daughter's going, or what she might be wearing or drinking, would make a rape her fault.

But Techiya Levine, a mother of three, says she felt that she had no choice but to warn her daughter anyway. She likens it to warning kids about the dangers of crossing the street.

"Just because it's the right of way for pedestrians to cross the street at the crosswalk, you still teach kids to look both ways," Levine says. "It doesn't mean you tell your kids, 'You just walk down that crosswalk. Cars might be coming but it's your right.' That really does assume that we live in a perfectly fair world, and we don't."

Levine and her husband often drilled their daughter with what to do if she was ever in trouble, even teaching her some martial arts. It's what saved her when then-17-year-old Nava Levine narrowly escaped an assailant near her Atlanta high school last year.

"I just clicked right into, 'Now you scream and now you run,' " Nava recalls. "I actually started screaming 'fire' because I had once learned that people respond better when they hear 'fire' rather than 'rape.' "

"So all those little things, they started kicking in, because I had it ingrained in me just so many times that it was a reflex."

Not One Person's Problem

One thing experts say all parents should be talking to kids about is stepping up to help someone in trouble.

University of New Hampshire prevention researcher Caroline Layva likens it to the massive shift in societal views toward drunken driving.

"We have to change the culture around who's responsibility is it," Layva says. "It isn't just that person's private business, or that person's problem."

That doesn't just mean students, parents and grandparents, but schools as well.

"It does have an impact on the entire community," Layva says, "and everybody has a role to play."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 10, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the audio version of this report, and in an earlier Web version, we misstate Kate Rohdenburg's role. She runs a violence prevention program for a group called WISE. She does not run a program called WISE. Also, in the audio version of this report, and in an earlier Web version, we mistakenly say that Laura Rice is a mother of two. In fact, she has three children. We also did not make clear that WISE has other programs besides one aimed at preventing sexual assault.
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.