Preventing sexual assault: Schools seek to educate, create safe reporting environments
Despite some progress, local school leaders admit districts still have a long way to go
Editor’s note: This story is the seventh part of an eight-week series focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. To view the entire series as it unfolds, visit SteamboatPilot.com/news/in-our-shoes.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Navigating the journey of sexual identity and discovery isn’t an easy one.
Those explorations often begin or intensify in high school, which comes with innumerable added pressures — pressure to be accepted, to be liked, to be beautiful, to be desirable, to be cool.
At the same time, young people may be experimenting with alcohol and drugs and finding ways to assert their independence as they socialize and participate in activities outside of school.
With a lack of experience and raging hormones, it is a time when judgment and decision-making are, by nature, not particularly rational or informed by wisdom.
It’s a time when, more than ever, young people need a safe and supportive environment in the event life takes a wrong turn.
Providing that support and imparting wisdom about right and wrong starts at home, but schools are increasingly building capacity to provide stronger social, behavioral and emotional support structures.
“The important thing is that we listen to kids, hear them and understand them,” said Lindsay Kohler, a social worker for the Hayden School District.
Kohler also points out that, in the event of a reported sexual assault, it is not necessarily her role to determine fault or veracity. Instead, she provides a safe place for students to confide, and then the school can connect the student with the right agency for “appropriate support and follow through.”
Creating stronger support networks
While there are a number of community resources and channels available to students who believe they’ve been sexually assaulted — or for those who feel they are being wrongly accused — the first step for schools lies in education.
Students need to know resources exist and how they can utilize them in a way in which they feel safe and comfortable.
Largely due to an increase in local, state and federal grants, school districts in Routt County have been able to bolster their staffs and services in terms of mental and behavioral health and social services.
In the Steamboat Springs School District, Superintendent Brad Meeks said there are counselors, family support liaisons, mental health therapists and a student resource officer at the high school.
Last year, Steamboat added a Dean of Student Culture, a position with a wide range of duties, including enforcing policies and serving “as a resource to staff regarding student management issues.”
Districts also utilize the Safe 2 Tell Colorado program, which allows students to leave anonymous tips, which are then investigated by law enforcement.
If any student comes forward with an allegation, it gets reported. It isn’t the district’s role to investigate, Meeks explained, but rather to pass all pertinent information on to the proper authorities.
“We are mandatory reporters,” Meeks said.
In terms of consequences, Meeks notes that, beyond what happens in the courts, the schools then work to determine an appropriate punishment, whether that be restorative justice programming, suspension or expulsion. Restorative justice forces students to face their victims and better understand the impacts of their actions.
Meeks acknowledges that when incidents occur, the results are not always what the parties involved want, and they don’t always happen as quickly as people would like. There are also limits to what the district administrators can discuss regarding minors.
“Sometimes, people feel like nothing is happening,” said Katie Jacobs, Steamboat Springs School District’s human resources director. “But things are happening.”
Kohler and Jacobs promote the Safe 2 Tell option as a good way for students to report something without fear of being identified.
At Soroco High School, social worker Meghan Wykhuis said she’s spent the past several years updating what was an outdated approach to sex education.
Today, Wykhuis said she believes Soroco has one of the best comprehensive sex education programs in the county, if not the state.
And a crucial piece of that is including and addressing issues unique to LGBTQ students, she said, who are most at risk for sexual assaults.
Schools are “a reflection of society in a lot of ways,” said Luke DeWolfe, Steamboat Springs High School assistant principal and athletic and activities director. DeWolfe said the high school has taken proactive measures to create social norms, foster a purposeful, positive culture and hold students to a higher level of accountability.
In Our Shoes is an eight-part series about sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County published by the Steamboat Pilot every Wednesday, from June 5 to July 24.
“Counselors are constantly working to improve how students can feel more supported,” Meeks said. “I believe it is also important that bystanders or friends who are aware of a sexual assault or sexual harassment need to be more involved in supporting the victim and reporting these incidents. All of us have a responsibility to step forward when sexual assault and sexual harassment occurs — and not just the victim.”
Meeks said he recognizes how hard it is for someone to report an incident of sexual assault. In addition to teachers and coaches, there are counselors, social workers, family student advocates and therapists available to students. Meeks also encourages students — or parents — to come see him if they have an issue.
Renewed focus on prevention
The other educational piece goes much deeper than how to report, and it’s aimed at actually preventing sexual assaults.
Last year, forensic nurse and social change advocate Patty Oakland and other staff members from Advocates of Routt County gave presentations to health classes, sports teams and parents across Routt County. In addition to teaching about sexual assault laws and the logistics of how and to whom to report, the presentations delve into the meaning of consent.
The emphasis on consent is new this year, said Advocates Executive Director Lisel Petis. Previously, presentations focused primarily on healthy relationships.
“Consent is someone saying ‘yes,’ not the lack of them saying ‘no,’” Oakland tells the students during the presentation.
And she stresses that a ‘no’ doesn’t have to be communicated with words. Close attention must be paid to non-verbal cues, she tells the students. That includes tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures or movements like pushing a hand away or pulling back.
“Sometimes, those nonverbal cues are the biggest and loudest clues,” said Marnie Christensen, Advocates program director and volunteer coordinator. “A lot of people have a hard time saying, ‘Stop!'”
Silence is a “no.” If someone said “yes” at first, but then changed to a “no,” that is a “no.” If someone is unconscious or semi-conscious, that is also a “no.” And if you’re having to question whether or not someone is sober, take that as a “no,” Wykhuis added.
Once given, consent can be taken back, Oakland tells the students.
Check in frequently, she advises. Ask, as often as you want, “Is this OK? Are you comfortable with this?”
On another slide, Oakland details “How not to be accused.”
“For so long, everything was victim-centered,” Oakland said. “The emphasis was on trying to teach people how not to be raped.”
Now, when speaking to students, she includes a lesson on “How not to rape.”
The consequences of being accused of sexual assault, rape or statutory rape, Oakland warns students, can stay with you for the rest of your life. In addition to potential jail time, she tells students they may have to register as a sex offender.
“Your parents will have to pay for lawyers,” Oakland said. “You may be expelled from school.”
With her energy, her openness and her sense of humor, Oakland appears to get through to kids. They laugh, they relate, but they also ask serious questions.
She makes the presentations on sexual assault both funny and gravely serious — and students respond.
The feedback from the presentations has been very positive.
“Better than I could have imagined,” Oakland said.
She’s had students reach out to her for additional help, and schools have requested she return.
More work to be done
Despite some progress, local school leaders admit districts still have a long way to go to ensure every student feels they are in a safe environment.
School should be a place where kids feel comfortable to be themselves, Wykhuis said, especially as they are figuring out their sexuality. It should also be a place students feel safe and heard.
When Steamboat Pilot & Today first announced the launch of the In Our Shoes series on sexual assault and asked for community feedback, the majority of input came from parents of high school-aged girls. They shared stories of disturbing incidents of sexual assault or unwanted advances by other students.
They described an environment in which students felt they were not being heard and their reports not given validation. They described an environment in which alleged perpetrators were going unpunished.
The first installment in the series took an in-depth look at why sexual assault is the most underreported crime in the United States, with approximately 80% of sexual assaults going unreported.
When dealing with minors, the reasons why so many assaults are not reported — both by victims and by news organizations — are compounded.
But the goal of this series is not to bring to trial any specific incidents. The goal is to open a dialogue and, hopefully, a path forward in which people of all ages can increase communication, empathy and understanding around the issue of sexual assault.
That improvement in awareness and communication has the power to decrease incidents of sexual assault and decrease incidents of sexual trauma, regardless of provable criminal activity and intent.
The vast majority of sexual assaults happening in the community are not perpetrated by a villainous stranger hiding in a dark alley. Most often, the victim knows the perpetrator, and the circumstances can be complicated, especially among students.
Meeks said schools are obligated to investigate both sides — the accused and the accuser — and “create a safe environment for everyone” as they go through the process.
“A lot goes into it,” Meeks said.
But he also understands how emotionally charged the issues can be.
“We want to deal with it as sensitively as possible,” Meeks explained. “We’re dealing with people’s children, and it’s not unusual to arrive at a decision where both sides are not happy.”
In Hayden, Kohler acknowledged both the plusses and minuses of a small, close-knit community. On one hand, most students have a close connection to at least one trusted adult in the community, whether that is herself or a coach, teacher or other mentor.
On the other hand, it makes anonymity more difficult. Sometimes, students struggle with reaching out, she said, because “they don’t want everyone to know what’s going on.”
Wykhuis said she finds that parents have a difficult time talking to their students about sex. And it can be difficult for kids to talk about sex with their parents.
One component of Wykhuis’ sex education programming involves the “family homework session” that accompanies each lesson plan. Parents must sign off on each topic, acknowledging they have talked about it at home with their child.
“It’s nice that the school can take on starting the conversation,” Wykhuis said.
Nothing, according to Petis, takes the place of the vital role parents play at home when discussing issues of sex, healthy relationships and consent.
“You can’t protect your kids from everything,” Kohler said. “But you can at least arm them with knowledge — knowledge that your body is your body.”
And it’s never too early to start teaching kids about boundaries.
If kids have not learned from an early age how to treat others with respect, communicate in a healthy way and be empathetic, it can be too late once they are in high school, Petis said.
It’s also a different era, notes Meeks, an era of heightened awareness about physical contact and about what may be offensive to another or make them uncomfortable, regardless of how another person views it.
Meeks said he wants students to feel safe in reporting incidents of sexual assault.
“How do you take possibly the most terrible thing that’s happened to a student and make it easier for them?” Meeks said. “I hope when they do decide to come forward, we make it easier for them.”
The district is also increasing training for its employees.
When something does happen, “We try to react as quickly as we can and be as fair as we can,” Meeks added.
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