Head's Notes - Focusing on the Well-being of Our Girls
Posted 09/27/2018 03:39PM

This moment in history gives us, as parents and educators, an opportunity to put aside partisanship and focus on the well-being of our young people. How can we help our young people avoid becoming victims or perpetrators of sexual assault, or if they do, feel empowered to seek support?

That sexual assault happens among teenagers across this country, at public and private schools alike, is a fact. The CDC's 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance found that 10.3% of female high school students have been forced to have sexual intercourse, while over 15% of girls who dated or "went out with someone" (69% of students) reported being forced to engage in unwelcome sexual activity. Sixteen- to nineteen-year-old girls are four times more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault than women as a whole. In addition, girls who are raped when they are young are much more likely to be raped again. Moreover, the CDC reports, sexual "violence in youth, without appropriate trauma-informed interventions, can result in immediate and lifelong consequences, including physical, emotional, behavioral, and social challenges, as well as suffering future abuse or continuing the cycle in adulthood by abusing others." The CDC provides research-based steps for prevention that include empowering girls, providing bystander training, and teaching young people about healthy sexuality and relationships along with general social-emotional programming, all within a context of positive social norms.

As we all know, Holton, with its motto, "I will find a way or make one," places the empowerment of girls and young women at the core of everything we do. Parents often remark on the increased self-confidence they observe in their daughters after just a few months at Holton and our seniors when asked what the school values, repeatedly reference confidence, independence, and the ability to speak for themselves.

Being able to combat harassment or aggression begins with a strong sense of self, but we recognize that we need to do more than instill self-confidence. Our students take part in a health and guidance curriculum beginning with our youngest students in third grade that embodies the CDC's recommendations. Indeed, in Lower School, we even use Second Step, one of the CDC's recommended programs.

We start laying foundational skills such as being assertive, identifying and managing feelings, setting boundaries, seeking help, and developing self-awareness in Lower School. Our health and guidance curriculum continues through Middle School, focusing on these issues while adding others such as the role of sex in healthy and loving relationships and power dynamics as developmentally appropriate. Each year also includes a special activity associated with assertiveness training. Seventh graders participate in "Strong is the New Pretty," an interdisciplinary art and guidance project in which students identify a personal strength and take a photo of themselves illustrating that strength. The photos with accompanying statements form an art exhibit. Eighth graders have the chance to dig deeper into the topics of sexual harassment and consent as well as gain practical assertiveness tools along with greater self-confidence through a full day of self-defense training.

The School's required ninth grade health class emphasizes the topics of sexual harassment and assault, consent, and healthy relationships as well as the perils of alcohol and drug use. Students learn that sexual harassment, regardless of how one is dressed or whether one has been drinking, is never acceptable and that, regardless of the harasser's intention, the person being harassed defines harassment. They explore consent, learning that not saying no does not imply yes; why some people endure inappropriate behavior while others do not; how drugs and alcohol can make people susceptible to harassment and assault; and how to respond if one feels sexually harassed or is abused or assaulted. They also devote time to examining the characteristics of healthy relationships from platonic friendships to romantic relationships. As part of these discussions, they discuss what one can do as a bystander, emphasizing how to help a friend. Bystander training bears particular importance because it puts discussion of topics that may seem irrelevant – "I'm never going to be sexually assaulted" – into a context that seems much more likely while also taking advantage of girls' desires to support their friends.

We continue this work in tenth grade with the Alcohol Symposium, a required event for students and parents, where sexual assault, consent, and bystander opportunities are discussed in the context of small group discussions of case studies. We believe that it is important for girls and boys to hear each others' perspectives on these issues, so in eleventh grade their Landon counterparts join our juniors for a program put on by Speak About It, a series of interactive skits and small-group discussions related to "consent, boundaries and healthy relationships." Landon and Holton seniors explore a college case study entitled "Drunk Sex or Date Rape," which also includes discussion about what to do if one finds oneself assaulted on a college campus.

Probably the most compelling aspect of the Upper School programming comes in the form of older girls sharing their own experiences around these issues. These accounts transform these topics from the abstract to something much more real. Moreover, the older girls' openness in talking about these sensitive issues models speaking up and taking action, sharing so others can benefit from their experiences instead of being silenced by shame.

While we have had this program for years, in the context of the #MeToo movement, as a school we have increased our focus on consent, sexual harassment, and assault, focusing on empowering girls to protect themselves physically and emotionally. We know that we haven't fully accomplished this goal for every girl, but we do know from student testimony that the work they do around these topics has helped some of them take action to address sexual violence.

We also recognize that parents play critical roles in these issues. Children appropriately learn their values from their families, and the messages we send around respect in general and girls and women in particular largely define our children's attitudes and behavior. Here is a website with some excellent videos to use as jumping off points for conversations about consent.

As parents we also want to create environments where children feel comfortable talking to us about sensitive issues. Anya Kamenetz had a helpful piece on how to talk to children about the events that have unfolded in the headlines over the past few weeks, in which she emphasized the importance of "askability." If you establish askability when children are young, you increase your "talk-to-ability" when they are older; you want them to tell you if something bad happens to them. Parental support can make a huge difference in how someone weathers an assault, for example.

Finally, as we all know, parents have a role to play in supervising their children, particularly around parties and alcohol. This can be challenging, certainly, but we owe them supervision and clear boundaries in this area to help limit bad choices.

Several parents have told me that these recent headlines have opened up conversations with their daughters about sexual assault and consent. I hope the same has happened with parents of boys because they deserve our attention, direction and support as much as the girls. Moreover, we will never make true headway in this area without including boys in these critical conversations. "Boys will be boys" categorically no longer counts as a viable excuse for sexual aggression. Indeed, only when we have a society grounded on true gender equity, gender equity embraced by males and females, will we root out sexual harassment and assault. That's an ambitious goal, but this moment presents a good one to start working towards it.

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