Tough talk: CCS aims to empower students to stop sexual assault through innovative new program

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No one likes to talk about it, but that’s a big reason Carmel Clay Schools officials feel they must.

Dr. Michael Beresford

Dr. Michael Beresford

Several athletes at Carmel High School will soon be among the district’s first students to experience a new program designed to inform and empower students called “Step Up to Stop Sexual Assault.” The district sent an email Aug. 20 to parents of students on teams scheduled to hear the presentation to let them know when their student would participate in it in lieu of practice.

“If our kids have solid, good information, it can help them make better decisions. It can help them be safer and it can help them keep their classmates and friends safer,” CCS Supt. Michael Beresford said.

The 45-minute presentations will be made by attorneys from Church, Church, Hittle + Antrim, a law firm that has been making similar presentations to college students for several years. This is the first time it’s taken the modified program to a high school, and CCS officials believe it’s the only program of its kind for high schoolers in the state.

Male and female student-athletes will be separated for the presentation but will receive similar information. Coaches and teachers will not be present, but the district will have a counselor available for those who wish to talk.

Thomas Harmas speaks to the Carmel school board after the announcement about his new role as principal at Carmel High School. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

Harmas (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

CCS recently piloted the program with a small group of students and discovered it provided information they were thankful to hear.

“When we asked, ‘Is the message on point and important?’ To a student, the answer was, ‘Yes,’” CHS Principal Tom Harmas said. “I think they’re grateful, too, that we’re broaching the subject, because it’s even difficult for them to talk about it with their friends, let alone adults.”

CHS officials said all students on sports teams, in performing arts programs and in student government are scheduled to hear the presentation this school year, which is approximately half of the more than 5,000 students at the school. School leaders want to expand the program in future years to make it available for any student interested in hearing it. Parents may choose to opt their child out of the program.

‘Something else’

The presentation is designed to help students avoid becoming a victim or perpetrator of sexual assault and identify and respond to possible incidents around them. The program covers issues in relationships between students and identifies warning signs to spot inappropriate behavior between students and school employees, too.

CCS officials said they are offering the program to be proactive, not to address a situation unique to Carmel. The district hasn’t been immune to the issue, however, as earlier this year a former swim coach was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison after admitting to sexually exploiting a student.

“We have had events in Carmel, and we’ve had events in Hamilton County. I don’t know too many colleagues that haven’t dealt with one level or another of this type of activity,” Beresford said. “Sometimes, you just come to a moment where you go, ‘Enough.’ You’ve got to do something else, and this is that something else.”

Day

CCS general counsel David Day and Beresford came up the idea during a discussion about student safety. Day, who works for Church, Church Hittle + Antrim, said he’s been dealing with the issue his entire 42 years as a lawyer,

“I’ve dealt (with it) at rural school corporations and in suburban and urban school situations,” he said. “It happens because of the age of the kids and because of the interaction that occurs. It’s human nature to a certain extent.”

Although sexual assault may not be a new problem, smartphones and social media have changed how it often occurs and has given school employees unprecedented access to students, Day said.

“I did not spend a lot of time my first 35 or so years worried about teachers texting students or the ability of the kids to exchange (inappropriate) photographs,” Day said.

Powerful information

As an attorney, Day said there’s one constant he sees in sexual assault cases involving high schoolers that he’s handled through the decades, and it’s convinced him that it makes sense to bring students into the conversation.

“The one thing we always know is when there’s a situation involving an inappropriate relationship, invariably other students know about it,” Day said. “Parents may not know about it, teachers may not know about it and administrators may not know about it, but invariably other students know, so we need to enable our students to help each other to avoid these situations that are harmful.”

Fagan

Kelleigh Fagan, one of the attorneys who gives the presentations, said students don’t often know what to do with troubling information.

“There’s some fears that if they have information, they’re going to get in trouble for talking about it, or somebody’s going to get mad at them for talking about it,” she said. “We try to get rid of that fear and give them really easy tools to know what to do with that information.”

Beresford said he expects other school districts will follow Carmel’s lead in implementing similar programs. He said he wished his three kids could have seen the presentation in high school.

And although the topic is difficult to talk about, Beresford believes it’s well worth a bit of discomfort if it improves student safety.

“I have faith in our kids that when they have good information and good direction, they’re going to be safer and make better decisions,” he said.

Sobering statistics

An estimated 10 percent of students experience school employee sexual misconduct by the time they graduate high school, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. But students are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow student, according to research conducted by The Associated Press.

The numbers only rise when students graduate from high school. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, women age 18 to 24 on college campuses are three times more likely than other women to experience sexual violence, and women of the same age but not in college are four times more likely. RAINN also reported that male college-aged students are 78 percent more likely than non-students of the same age to be a victim of a sexual assault.

That’s why Carmel Clay Schools officials hope the information presented in the “Step Up to Stop Sexual Assault” presentation will benefit students well beyond their years at CHS. They also hope it sheds light on what is appropriate and what’s not before it’s too late.

“We want (students) to not only not be a victim in those scenarios, but we don’t want people to be placed in a situation where they could be considered a perpetrator, either,” CHS Athletic Director Jim Inskeep said. “We’re not only trying to give them the tools to succeed now but also in the future.”

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