[STAFF EDITORIAL] Group discussion improves sexual assault conversation

Ellie Nowakowski - to see the full infographic click the tv icon in the top right corner

As officially designated by former President Barack Obama, April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. This year’s theme is “Embrace Your Voice,” a mantra often missed when thinking about, learning about, or talking about sexual assault and violence. Misinterpretations of sexual assault victims stem from everyday happenings: watching television, listening to music, or reading the news. Accepting the role that everyone, not just victims, play in educating and getting education on the reality of sexual violence helps emphasize and alleviate the issue. For St. Paul Academy and Summit School students, these conversations take place in specific classrooms, but more opportunities to partake in these discussions must be incorporated into the curriculum to sustain early education on the topic of sexual violence.

With comfortable pillows, mellow lighting, and quirky get-to-know-you questions, Wellness serves as a great example of a class that thoughtfully facilitates conversations about sexual assault, among other issues. Sophomores required to take one quarter of Wellness finish the course with an enhanced understanding of sexual assault prevention, statistics and resources. The coziness of this class betters the often difficult conversations that must take place. Questions are encouraged and welcomed. Students are heard and listened to. US Counselor Susanna Short, who teaches the class, uses a balance of anecdotes and facts to convey necessary information about the inherent actuality of sexual assault in many different communities.

More opportunities to partake in these discussions must be incorporated into the curriculum to sustain early education on the topic of sexual violence.”

In addition to the required Wellness class SPA offers sophomores, SPA also offers Senior Seminar: Spanish VI which includes a unit that interrogates and questions the role that social media has and its relation to sexual assault. Students in the course are to present a danger that comes with the internet and social media usage to sixth graders in the Middle School. Many students choose to focus their final project on topics such as grooming, sexting, or non consensual image sharing. The unit offers an excellent opportunity to learn about how the internet can be a dangerous place for predators or photo sharing to occur, and additionally, speaking about a serious societal issue such as sexual assault in Spanish further enriches students’ conversational abilities.

While these examples of admirable discussion of sexual assault benefit many students, these conversations must take place earlier in a student’s life, and in more places at SPA. From a young age, everyone is exposed to the subversive way society promotes and even encourages sexually abusive behavior. Reducing sexual assault comes from determining and eradicating the roots of this behavior. Learning about sexual violence prevention should, in reality, begin in early childhood, or at least, in 9th grade at SPA.


Earlier education on the topic is the best way to maximize new learning for students. Skills to understand and prevent sexual assault are rooted in practicing empathy, asking questions, recognizing sexual coercion and calling out sexually abusive comments, jokes or attitudes. Class discussions about these topics could easily be incorporated into class meetings in 9th grade, history classes, or in places as intimate as advisory. History courses hold particular importance to the topic, as the historical connotations of sexual violence can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans, two civilizations that 9th graders study in World History I. And thus this class could spend a whole day while studying these cultures discussing the problem of sexual violence and assault throughout history. In addition to history, education about sexual assault could easily occur in Fitness for Life, as a main part of that class focuses on adolescent health.

While the Senior Retreat does bring in professionals who educate seniors on the reality of sexual harassment in college, this education comes far too late. It is also problematic because these conversations at the retreat were split by gender. The girls learned about self-defense and sexual assault prevention, while the boys learned about shaping healthy masculinity. Developing healthy notions of masculinity should be held with these boys much sooner in their life, and it seems late to bring this topic up at the end of their high school career, and really their adolescence. In addition to this, presentations about sexual assault prevention in the college years is ill-informed, as many people experience sexual assault before they are 18. Thirty percent of women were between 11-17 when they first encounter rape.

Informative assemblies provide an outlet for educators to deliver presentations on an array of topics (environmental, scientific, mental health, substance abuse, sexual assault, etc), but the standardization of these assemblies limits the opportunity for students to ask questions and discuss together. Four microphones in the auditorium seldom accommodate curious students needs, and for younger students, it may be daunting to ask a question in front of the entire school.

Small, teacher-facilitated discussions provide a more viable solution to tackle often difficult conversations. Research has found that in smaller group discussions, students are better equipped to contribute, ask questions, and genuinely learn from the subject matter. In addition to more conversational flexibility, the topics can be split up to ensure full-fledged understanding for students. With a curriculum at SPA that already supports this ideology of small classroom discussion, it seems fit that classrooms would provide time to talk about very real issues like sexual assault, not just discourses about the unit.

When schools, teachers and institutions omit teaching students about the harrowing realities of this society, like sexual violence, messages of complicity persist. In not educating students, particularly at a young age, about the problems of sexual harassment, these issues eventually groom people into instances when sexual assault behavior can flourish and become normalized. The best way to address this is through education, which SPA has already instituted in selected courses. Despite this great step forward, SPA has a long way to go for including beneficial discussion about sexual assault within the classroom.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted this hotline can connect you to someone who can talk to you on the process of healing from sexual violence.