Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Schools Can Help Prevent More #MeToo Stories

By Lee Paiva — November 16, 2017 5 min read

We are in the midst of a seismic shift in consciousness around sexual harassment and assault. The sweeping allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein—more than 100 women have accused him of sexual harassment and assault since October—was only the beginning. A growing group of high-profile actors, television executives, politicians, academics, news editors, and journalists have been accused of sexual aggressions, including actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and Republican Senate candidate Roy S. Moore. Every hour brings scores of testimonies from women and men publicly sharing their experiences, including on social media through the #MeToo campaign.

But amid the accusations and public outrage, there has been scant attention paid to how to prevent sexual harassment or assault. Yes, we have workplace policies and awareness campaigns, and many employers are requiring some form of harassment training for their employees. But these trainings are largely ineffective. They don’t provide honest and comprehensive education about sexual and gender power dynamics. And they are largely aimed at limiting an employer’s liability. Most critically, we aren’t teaching young people the prevention strategies they should learn beginning in elementary school.

14 Comm1 Paiva 300x250 Opinion Copyright Getty

Here’s what we should pay attention to: Teaching self defense and empowerment to young people decreases sexual violence. Multiple studies have proven that comprehensive safety education is the most effective and long-term solution to harassment and assault prevention. But it takes trained educators to help students realize the strength they have to fight this epidemic.

Like most, I never received any warning about sexual predators. At age 16, I had the brilliant idea to hitchhike across the country alone. One evening in a Colorado hippie commune, I woke up with a drunken housemate on top of me. Although I struggled and repeatedly said no, his force and mass were then too much for me. It took many years for me to call the incident rape, and even longer to understand why, in a house filled with people, I didn’t call out for help.

It wasn’t until I took a self-defense course years later that what had happened in Colorado became clear. The course, which taught an empowering model of self defense, opened up another world for me. I learned how to listen to my gut and register dangerous situations. I learned de-escalation and negotiation skills that I applied in my everyday life, not just when I felt my safety was at stake. I learned I have the right to say “no” loudly and publicly in response to unwanted behavior, however minor, and if my no was not respected, I learned physical skills to stop the behavior.

In 2009, building on my work as a self-defense instructor, I founded the rape-prevention nonprofit No Means No Worldwide and began adapting the methods to one of the most sexually violent places in the world: Nairobi, Kenya, where 1 in 4 girls is raped every year.

All instructors are young men and women from local communities who complete a training before teaching an empowerment, self-defense, and intervention program to secondary school students (typically ages 10 to 20). While the girls learn assertiveness, boundary-setting rules, and self defense, the boys learn to challenge rape culture, ask for consent, and use bystander intervention when they hear someone planning or bragging about a rape or witness an assault in progress.

The research we’ve conducted in collaboration with Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities has shown that wherever our [self-defense] courses have been taught to girls, rape rates have decreased by half."

To be clear: In no way do we stress meeting violence with violence. Students are encouraged to follow their intuition in an attack. The goal of empowerment self-defense is to get away safely and tell someone about the situation. The key is giving students the skills—both mentally and physically—to stand up to inappropriate behavior at a young age and create a culture of mutual respect.

Since 2009, the research we’ve conducted in collaboration with Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities has shown that wherever our courses have been taught to girls, rape rates have decreased by half. One 2014 study found that more than half of the nearly 2,000 high school girls in Nairobi who finished the self-defense course had deflected sexual harassment or rape. Similarly, after taking the training, of the 35 percent of adolescent boys who witnessed a sexual assault in progress, three-quarters of them successfully intervened to stop it. Similar self-defense approaches at several colleges in the United States and Canada reduced the risk of sexual assault among students by as much as half.

At home, K-12 schools have an important role to play in sexual-violence prevention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, but it doesn’t have to be this way. All children need techniques to challenge rape culture and to learn how to deal with inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, coercion, and assault.

As children grow, educators—be they teachers or school counselors—must create space for honest and sincere dialogue about age-old sexual power dynamics. Since most schools don’t offer these kinds of classes yet, to do so will require bold, innovative leadership on the part of school leaders. They will need to advocate and fundraise for sexual-assault-awareness curricula, as well as recruit trained professionals well prepared to teach empowerment and self-defense strategies that are proven effective. There may be naysayers and other red tape, but these are skills students will use over the course of a lifetime.

This type of sexual-assault-prevention education is not about blaming women for their clothing choices or labeling young men as rapists. Nor is it about revenge or turning young women into battle-ready maidens. It is about providing a countering voice to the violence and negative gender stereotyping that boys and girls experience beginning in puberty and remain trapped in for much of their lives. It is about changing our culture through education, one step at a time.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2017 edition of Education Week as Sexual Assault Prevention Needs to Start Early


Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
The 4 Biggest Challenges of MTSS During Remote Learning: How Districts Are Adapting
Leaders share ways they have overcome the biggest obstacles of adapting a MTSS or RTI framework in a hybrid or remote learning environment.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Student Well-Being Online Summit Keeping Students and Teachers Motivated and Engaged
Join experts to learn how to address teacher morale, identify students with low engagement, and share what is working in remote learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Join us for our NBOE 2021 Winter Teacher Virtual Interview Fair!
Newark, New Jersey
Newark Public Schools
Special Education Teacher
Chicago, Illinois
JCFS Chicago
Assistant Director of Technical Solutions
Working from home
EdGems Math LLC

Read Next

School Climate & Safety When Toxic Positivity Seeps Into Schools, Here's What Educators Can Do
Papering over legitimate, negative feelings with phrases like "look on the bright side" can be harmful for teachers and students.
6 min read
Image shows the Mr. Yuck emoji with his tongue out in response to bubbles of positive sayings all around him.
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Ingram Publishing/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Teaching's 'New Normal'? There's Nothing Normal About the Constant Threat of Death
As the bizarre becomes ordinary, don't forget what's at stake for America's teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Minkel.
4 min read
14Minkel IMG
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor Invisibility to Inclusivity for LGBTQ Students
To the Editor:
I read with interest “The Essential Traits of a Positive School Climate” (Special Report: “Getting School Climate Right: A Guide for Principals,” Oct. 14, 2020). The EdWeek Research Center survey of principals and teachers provides interesting insight as to why there are still school climate issues for LGBTQ students.
1 min read
School Climate & Safety As Election 2020 Grinds On, Young Voters Stay Hooked
In states like Georgia, the push to empower the youth vote comes to fruition at a time when “every vote counts” is more than just a slogan.
6 min read
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Young people celebrate the presidential election results in Atlanta. Early data on the 2020 turnout show a spike in youth voting, with Georgia, which faces a pair of senatorial runoffs, an epicenter of that trend.
Brynn Anderson/AP