Stamford High students get education on sexual assault
STAMFORD — A young woman wakes up on her college campus Sunday morning feeling confused about what happened the night before, when she started out with friends and then things got fuzzy.
It’s a story that Charlotte Poth, of the Stamford-based Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, hears all too frequently. But she hopes the calls will become less frequent with a new program that started this month at Stamford High School.
“What would you do if a friend called you and said, ‘Man, I woke up this morning and I don’t know what happened last night,’” Poth asked a group of teens at SHS earlier this month. “‘I woke up on this random couch. The last memory I have is talking to a group of people and I feel like something bad may have happened.’”
Unfortunately, Poth said, few people know how to help a potential victim of sexual violence.
Aware of the challenge, several students at Stamford High School decided to be proactive and learn how to help such victims — while students there, in college or elsewhere.
Data shows students, especially women, are often vulnerable to sexual violence:
-One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college
-Most often, it happens her freshman or sophomore year
-In 75 to 80 percent of the cases, she knows her attacker
-Many are abused while drugged, drunk, passed out or otherwise incapacitated
-Only 2 percent of incapacitated sexual assault survivors and 13 percent of forcible rape survivors report the crime to campus or local law enforcement
The result is a new student-led partnership between the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council and the sexual assault crisis center that kicked off this month at SHS.
The Peer Health Education Team, as it will be known, consists of three two-hour training sessions with staff from the center.
The six girls selected for the pilot program have been learning about affirmative consent; what makes a healthy relationship; how to respond to sexual violence disclosures; sexual harassment law in the workplace and other relevant laws and protections, such as Title II and Title IX.
Poth, the center’s communications and prevention coordinator, told students during the first session of the program that language is crucial when communicating with a victim of sexual violence.
“Often they don’t know what to say or they don’t what to do to be helpful, so they freeze,” she said. “Using the right words is really powerful.”
Poth, who has worked with numerous sexual assault victims, said it’s important for them to be surrounded with friends and family members who are supportive and know how to help.
“An almost universal sentiment is this incredible feeling of isolation afterwards and feeling like they are completely alone in the world and that this horrible experience, or experiences, is something that others can’t understand,” she said. “So any kind of community you can lend them is so powerful.”
Program participant Liisa Balazs, 18, said high school is the ideal setting and time to learn about sexual violence.
“It’s really important that high schoolers start to learn this at a young age so when they do get into the real world, in college, they know how to deal with everything they will have to face,” the SHS senior said.
Balazs said such training will be useful even before college because teens sometimes are exposed to risky behavior.
“At any scene where there’s alcohol, people are a lot looser and they let their guard down,” she said.
Junior Georgia Pensiero, 16, agrees.
“It worries me that a lot of people don’t know much about it at all,” she said.
Ivonne Zucco, the center’s executive director, praised the students’ “fantastic” initiative, noting that people tend to take advice from their peers more than from others.
“This is the only way we’re going to change the culture around the issue,” she said.
The group is also learning about bystander intervention, grounding techniques for when flashbacks occur, rape culture and how to challenge it at school and in the community at large and how to hold institutions accountable when civil rights are infringed upon. The students in the program said they intend to share their knowledge with other students and staff at the school after the training is done.
Zucco hopes the program will spread to other schools across the city.
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