Sexual Assault: Where Prevention Should Begin

We're paying a lot of attention to gender-based violence on college campuses, but preventing it should begin in our elementary and high schools.
March 6, 2015
By Maria Hengeveld  |  Contributor
Maria Hengeveld is a Dutch Fulbright Fellow in Human Rights at Columbia University.

The national debate on sexual assaults on college campuses has drawn attention to the need for governments to work with universities and invest in education as a tool for prevention. Yet in our collective focus on college campuses, we are overlooking the solutions that elementary and high schools have to offer.

Dating violence and sexual assaults don't start in college. In a study by the National Institute of Justice, more than 20 percent of 5,647 interviewees who had attended grades 7-12 reported dating abuse, and 9 percent said they had suffered sexual coercion. Thirteen percent of the teens who had dated within the previous year said they had experienced sexual coercion. In 2011, according to a report by New York City's Office to Combat Domestic Violence, 10.4 percent of male and female high school students reported having been "hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend/girlfriend within the past year."

What these distressing numbers reveal is that prevention efforts are needed long before college orientation. They also urge us to think about all of those high-school graduates who won't go on to college. Sexual assaults and consent issues permeate all spheres of society, including the home and the workplace; they are not limited to campuses.

We also need to keep in mind that sexual assaults represent only one manifestation of a much larger problem around gender norms and violence. Discrimination based on students' sexual orientation and gender identity, for example, is an issue that should be taken more seriously. Bullying of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people, which often takes place in or around schools, is thought to be responsible for the fact that young people with non-conforming sexual orientations or gender identities attempt suicide at higher rates than heterosexual youth.

Domestic violence is yet another form of gender-based violence that creates particular needs for children and youth who are affected by it. Experts estimate that around 24 percent of U.S women between the ages of 18 and 65 have experienced domestic violence. Last year the New York City police department responded to more than 282,000 incidents of domestic violence, a crime that is notoriously underreported.

What all of this makes clear is that school-aged children are confronted with all kinds of gender-based violence from an early age and need to learn about relationships and gender norms as early as elementary school. And their needs are not limited to prevention. Many of them will have traumas and immediate treatment needs as well. Wouldn't it be great if students could see a social worker at their schools to talk about trauma, dating violence, relationship dynamics or discrimination?

New York City is home to several dozen community health centers that are running satellite mental-health clinics in schools to do exactly that: reach students where they are with individual counseling sessions. Many of them also run classroom-based programs and dialogues that deal with relationships, gender-based violence and dating dynamics. Funding for these efforts, however, largely depends on insurers' compensation for treatment sessions, which makes the implementation and expansion of such classroom programs a challenge.

What New York City is doing amounts to a good start toward dealing with these issues. But if cities and school systems across the country could direct more resources toward providing age-appropriate and culturally sensitive curricula, creating partnerships to provide effective school-based mental-health services, we could do a lot more to prevent gender-based violence long before it finds its way to our college campuses and our workplaces.

Maria Hengeveld | Contributor