While the national focus on sexual assault intensifies, the local school community is ramping up services and support systems designed to protect students from the threat of similar violence.
Those who started building the network years ago agree the recent attention garnered by the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh and the #metoo movement helped move their effort forward.
Streamlining the reporting process for sexual assault victims, facilitating coordination among involved agencies and establishing an anonymous tip line are among the initiatives identified by officials as useful in addressing the problem.
Perhaps most helpful for those seeking to combat sexual assault though is an enhanced willingness and ability by students and members of the school community to talk about an issue previously considered taboo.
“It’s just a more open conversation, so kids are lining up to tell their stories,” said Mary McGrath, a director of Safe and Supportive Schools with the county Office of Education. “So we are just trying to provide that support for them.”
All hands on deck
Among her responsibilities with the county, McGrath helps oversee systems and protocol shared by school systems, law enforcement agencies and medical organizations intended to make sexual assault investigations more seamless.
The county office serves as a connective tissue between the agencies and helped simplify a dysfunctional reporting system which McGrath said formerly threatened to make an already difficult process more traumatic for victims.
With assistance from nonprofit Rape Trauma Services, local law enforcement agencies, school districts and other involved parties, McGrath said victims previously required to share the stories of their attack several times now only must do so three times.
Such protocol helps smooth a potentially painful experience while also moving the resulting criminal examination moving ahead with greater efficiency, she said.
“It’s a way to reduce the trauma of the youth but also keep investigation lines as clean as possible in addressing whatever the concern was,” said McGrath.
A key piece in the effort is establishment of an information sharing agreement under which agencies can transfer valuable data in an investigation and cut through the red tape which previously bogged down the process.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, said McGrath, who also pointed to the value of collaborative training sessions to build relationships among those organizations supporting students.
“The county as well as districts like the San Mateo Union High School District are working industriously to make sure staff is trained,” she said. “And it’s not just the schools, but also child welfare and law enforcement are trained to make sure we don’t mishandle this moment.”
While improving the efforts of skilled professionals is essential to addressing reports of sexual assault, educators are also looking to build lessons to prevent the crimes from occurring.
April Torres, a wellness coordinator with the San Mateo Union High School District, said officials are working with students to build awareness around issues such as sexual consent and healthy relationships.
The conversations are held during schoolwide assemblies, built around educational videos, addressed in the classroom and offered through counseling sessions, said Torres.
“We are just getting out the message to all students and then having individual conversations as needed,” she said.
She too agreed the increased attention paid to issues around sex, consent and assault among students has helped break down the walls which previously hamstrung honest conversations.
“There’s definitely a rise in these types of issues, but I don’t think they did not exist before,” she said. “It’s just I feel now we are better equipped. And it’s not that we are best equipped. But we are bridging that gap.”
A key effort for the school district in building communication lines is working with parents too, and conveying messages in a way that best resonates with the entire school community, said Torres.
To that end, Torres said officials have hosted education nights for families to address issues subjects which may be otherwise difficult to broach and will do so in Spanish when necessary. Connecting directly with students through their affiliation with clubs built around their extracurricular interests or lifestyles can be an effective mechanism for officials as well.
She said such an effort may seem a departure from responsibilities traditionally associated with a school, but said building a safety net for students related to issues encountered outside of the classroom is part of a modern education.
“There is an expectation, now more than ever, that there is a level of school support in this,” she said.
With the heightened expectation comes the need for teachers and administrators to be thoughtful in their approach, said Torres, while recognizing there are often divergent and closely-held opinions on often sensitive issues.
Don Scatena, district director of Student Services, agreed while also deferring to the abilities of young adults to responsibly address challenging issues facing their school community.
“Giving students this information and education and making sure that individuals feel supported will go toward improving our culture around this issue,” he said.
Beyond more information, officials are also offering the school community additional resources to report incidences of sexual assault as well as other crimes and misbehavior or cause for concern.
One effective mechanism noted by Scatena was an anonymous system offered to students and families through which concerned parties can identify potentially dangerous scenarios.
He said the cyber tip line, accessed through a mobile app, was established late last year and has proven since to be a valuable resource for those seeking confidentiality when sharing potentially sensitive information. He noted the system is most commonly used by friends or family members of a victim who knows details about an assault, but feels uncomfortable sharing the information without the protection of anonymity.
Scatena acknowledged initially there was an uptick of pranks reported when it was first rolled out, but eventually the fakes slowed down and the system is now just another outlet for those in need.
The app is useful in detailing cases of alleged sexual assault, but also other crimes or cause for concern such as reports of students with weapons or those struggling with mental health.
“This allows for the administration to get the information to start an investigation and the counselors to offer support when necessary,” he said.
Beyond the outreach efforts and preventative measures launched, Scatena also acknowledged the ongoing national discourse, which started largely with the #metoo movement last year, can be an asset for those looking for teachable moments.
“We felt like it was a good moment to use this as an educational opportunity for our students,” he said.
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