I didn’t set out to become an activist. Activism found me four years ago at the age of 12, when my friends started to date. One couple became legendary at our school, but not in a good way. One day I’d see them walking hand-in-hand, the next day they would be screaming at each other. Broken up? Madly in love? No one could keep track.
Teens I talk to now tell me that every school has “this couple.” Everyone seemed to just shrug the behavior off, but I didn’t get it. Was this normal? Is this what I had to look forward to when I started dating? I did some research, and what I learned shocked me: unhealthy relationships start early and can last a lifetime.
I decided to make a video with facts about domestic and teen dating violence. Other kids volunteered to help me out. We showed the video at school club meetings throughout our county and found that most students hadn’t realized that unhealthy relationships could spin out of control and create perpetual patterns of abuse. Guys were particularly shocked to learn that they could become victims of dating violence, too. The video made students think about what they will accept from a dating partner – something they hadn’t been aware they should consider. This work gave me confidence in my own voice. I learned that anyone – including teens – can effect change, and realizing this made me want to do even more.
Around this time I heard a radio program talking about sexual assault. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had learned from that episode, including that about 1 in 5 girls will be sexually assaulted while in college, as will 1 in 16 boys, but that roughly 80 percent don’t report their assault. What really haunted me, however, was the fact that this problem doesn’t begin in college – it begins in elementary and secondary schools.
These weren’t just statistics: they were people – students, just like my friends and me. At first, I was scared, but then I became angry. Why weren’t more teachers or administrators talking to us about sexual assault? If these statistics represented a disease that could be inoculated, schools would mandate that every student be vaccinated for our own protection. Sexual assault is an epidemic in our secondary schools and our universities, and yet there is still more that needs to be done. Sexual assault education should be a mandatory subject in every elementary, middle, and high school across our country and at our universities.
Until it is, though, I’m on a mission to teach students the facts about what constitutes consent, how to stay safe, and what their Title IX rights are. In 2014 I formed EMPOWERU, a community action program that aims to do just this. And, I joined the advisory board of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.
In April 2015, with the help of my EMPOWERU Ambassadors, I held a countywide pledge drive at area high schools to encourage students to take a pledge against sexual assault. Over 200 students took it.
During this campaign I was shocked by the range of students’ responses. Many were put off by having to confront the reality of sexual assault. Perhaps they were scared or didn’t believe it could happen to them. On the flip side, a few e-mailed me to say they or a friend had survived sexual assault and thanked me for my work. Both of these reactions affirmed that doing this work with my high school peers is necessary.
I wanted to do more, but quickly found that doing so was an uphill battle. It took eight months of meetings with school officials and local sexual-assault experts to screen the sexual-assault documentary It Happened Here at each of the high schools in my county. Eventually, however, I succeeded and played a key role in helping over 1,500 kids learn about sexual assault.
The screenings made a big impact. (You can see some of the attendees’ reactions here.) I could see how engaged the students were by the expressions on their faces, the silence in the room, and the great questions they asked afterward. Students had clearly bought into many myths about sexual assault: They were shocked to learn that girls almost always know their assailants and that boys can be sexually assaulted, too. They also didn’t realize that consent is never gray – that the absence of “yes” is an absence of consent.
Making an impact on my community feels great. But, when Esther Warkov, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the national nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault In Schools (SSAIS) asked me to join the SSAIS advisory board to help take on sexual assault in grades K-12 nationwide, I couldn’t refuse. We recently released a FREE sexual assault educational video “Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School!” that features experts who present the facts of sexual assault in K-12 schools and Title IX rights.
My work is far from done. I won’t rest until students, younger and older, are educated about the very real dangers of sexual assault and about their own Title IX rights so they are prepared to deal with this problem.
A version of this article originally appeared on MTV News
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