Effectiveness of sexual assault education for high school students questioned

Fenna Semken

Attempts to educate students about sexual assault in a high school setting sometimes lack effectiveness, revealed by interviews with teachers, administrators and high school students from 18 Iowa school districts, including West High School.

The result is students who said they didn’t know what sexual assault consisted of, how to prevent it and how to get help after an assault took place.

The interviews revealed that the problem stems, in part, from too little time for the topic when so many things need to be covered in health classes. In some schools, the education is only in ninth grade, a time before most students become sexually active, educators said in the West Side Story (WSS) interviews. In other schools, education is not provided at all.

Curriculum among school districts varies because it is chosen at the local– not state– level, Staci Hupp-Ballard, Iowa Department of Education communications director, said.

“A school’s curriculum decision is approved by its school board or authorities in charge,” Hupp-Ballard said. “The Iowa Department of Education’s role is to ensure districts are providing the required courses and to provide resource links for school districts or schools to access,” she said.

Des Moines Valley High School Principal Tim Miller said, “We do not have a course in place that has curriculum specifically tied to sexual assault.” Reasons include not having time or course material, he said. 

THE UNSPOKEN TOPIC

Rape and sexual violence are commonly known abuses on college and high school campuses, according to RAINN, the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. About 70 percent of all sexual assault cases happen to children ages 17 and under. More than 42 million adults were sexually assaulted before the age of 18, information released by the Children’s Assessment Center shows.

More education about sexual assault would teach young people about healthy relationships, break stereotypes and expose people to what sexual violence really is, Kathryn Rittenhour, a Rape Victim Advocacy Program volunteer in Iowa City, said. Rittenhour, a University of Iowa graduate student in the Department of Sociology, speaks frequently in Iowa City-area schools about rape and assault prevention.

“Then students may be able to assist someone who has been a victim of sexual violence or they could be able to recognize what abuse and violence looks like in their own lives,” she said.

“After my assault, I didn’t feel comfortable at school, a place where I was supposed to feel safe. In everyone’s eyes, it was my fault, and his friends joked about me. My whole life was ruined

That kind of knowledge would have helped one Eastern Iowa high school junior who said she was sexually assaulted and who consented to being interviewed by WSS if her name was not used. WSS confirmed that her case was turned over to police and agreed not to identify her because she is a minor and because of the nature of what happened.

The student said her body shut down and froze and that she didn’t know what to do when she was assaulted in November 2015. She received counseling from rape victim advocates.

“They talked to me about it and helped me understand that it wasn’t my fault that I froze, because I blamed myself for so long,” she said. “That is what people don’t understand. They don’t realize how it happens. A lot of people think that you have to be in a dark alley or be drunk for you to be sexually assaulted, and that’s not true.”

MIXED MESSAGES

Rittenhour said these misconceptions about sexual violence are common among Iowa high school students and teachers.

“A lot of young people don’t have much exposure to education about healthy relationships and sexual violence,” Rittenhour said. “And unfortunately there are a lot of myths and stereotypical images in media which get perpetuated in schools and classroom that can be really harmful. This can create some negative betrayals of what relationships look like for teenagers, making sexual assault a huge problem in high school settings.”

Taylor Grider, 16, an Iowa City West High School junior said she took one trimester of health during her freshman year but that seemed like a minimal amount considering that she was going to high school for four years.

“I don’t think we even really touch the subject of assault that much. I don’t even remember talking about it,” Grider said.

“When students aren’t educated on sexual assault they feel lost when it happens to them or a friend; they don’t know exactly what it is, how to stop it, and how to report it,” said Brooke Timmerman.

Students are not the only ones who think this. West High health teacher Kathy Bresnahan said sexual assault should be brought up in more than just freshman health class.

“Juniors and seniors need to hear about it at their age much more,” Bresnahan said. “The downfall of this curriculum is that it is just for ninth graders and there is so much health information to go over. And everything is important but we have such little time.”

Brooke Timmerman, 18, a senior at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, said she fears that minimal education makes students more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

“When students aren’t educated on sexual assault, they feel lost when it happens to them or a friend; they don’t know exactly what it is, how to stop it, and how to report it,” she said.

A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING 

“I honestly never really knew what a sexual assault was, or what you would consider an act of sexual assault,” said Sydnie, another Eastern Iowa high school junior who said she was sexually abused at her school in a place where cameras did not exist. WSS chose not to use her full name in this story.

“Now, if one of my friends, family members, or even just an acquaintance would come up to me and say something happened, I would urge them to tell someone right away. I kept mine hidden for a long time, and it only made things worse.”

She eventually reported the incident to school officials and police.

After her incident, Sydnie began to notice that many of her peers didn’t understand sexual assault. “I heard this one guy say, ‘He touched her butt, I bet she’s going to turn him in for sexual assault now.’ They don’t understand how serious it is, and that it is more than just that.”

HOW SOME DISTRICTS RESPOND

Despite concerns about sexual assault prevention education, several Iowa school administrators WSS interviewed said the amount of education is right where it needs to be.

Many Iowa districts share a partnership with the University of Northern Iowa Center for Violence Prevention, implementing a program called Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP). The districts include Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown and Cedar Falls school districts.

Other districts that are not involved with MVP are making strides addressing sexual violence, said administrators at other school districts who were interviewed. They said they are not able to spend a lot of time on assault prevention education. 

“Classes are only one trimester, so we are not able to allocate a lot of time to assault, but do try to have a couple of lessons on it,” Sue Chelf, health curriculum coordinator in the Iowa City school district, said.

Lora Daily, Iowa City school district director of learning supports, said, “We know it affects students in our schools, and we will continue to review our curriculum, provide ongoing staff training and utilize local experts such as the RVAP (Iowa City’s Rape Victim Advocacy Program).”

Students who were interviewed said they are advocating for improvement of their school’s curriculum so that it teaches sexual assault prevention.

“Classes are only one trimester, so we are not able to allocate a lot of time to assault, but do try to have a couple of lessons on it,” said Sue Chelf.

Talking would be the first choice of the Eastern Iowa student who agreed to talk with WSS about being assaulted in November 2015. “After my assault, I didn’t feel comfortable at school, a place where I was supposed to feel safe. In everyone’s eyes, it was my fault, and his friends joked about me. My whole life was ruined,” she said.

“No one knows or understands the feelings that someone like me is going through after it,” she said about being assaulted. “Students should be more educated in this type of seriousness and realize that it is an actual problem. I never thought that this would happen to me, but it did, and I didn’t know what to do.”

Read the full story on IowaWatch.org. This IowaWatch story was republished by the Sioux City Journal, North Liberty Leader, Oskaloosa News, and The Gazette under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.