A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that nearly one in five women in the United States has been raped during her lifetime.
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center reports that women between the ages of 16 and 24 are four times more vulnerable to rape than any other national demographic.
Furthermore, victims of sexual assault and violence are at an increased risk of acquiring a litany of mental health issues, ranging from major depressive disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder, and the experience of sexual assault and violence increases the risk of suicide.
In short, sexual assault contributes to a national mental health crisis, and prevention within Cleveland is urgently required to diminish the debilitating and often fatal ramifications that sexual assault has on psychological functioning.
Despite this, sexual assault prevention isn’t mandated within the Cleveland public schools. Sex education is offered, but many of the physical education and health teachers delivering components of the curriculum report discomfort and ill-preparedness in teaching about sexual violence prevention and community resources pertaining to healthy sexual functioning.
Sex education in the Cleveland schools has demonstrated positive outcomes and is proven effective at raising student awareness on the use of contraceptives, avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases, and reporting of child sexual abuse.
But Cleveland students still appear to lack sufficient knowledge on the definitions, outcomes, and prevention of rape and sexual assault.
Given the prevalence and negative physical and psychological impact of sexual assault among young people, both male and female students urgently require gender-specific education on the prevention of rape and other sexual violence.
While programs specific to diminishing rape and sexual violence are not universally employed in Cleveland schools, sexual assault prevention programs have been developed that could positively impact the culture in which adolescents learn to understand the nature of healthy relationships as well as sexual violence and assault if mandated within schools.
For example, peer education programs exist in which high school students are encouraged to engage in dialogue with one another to change perceptions about sexual assault and their roles in preventing it. If mandated within Cleveland schools, such a program could assist in preventing future sexual assaults, while promoting discussions between male and female adolescents about romantic relationships, victim blaming, and rape myths.
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center has already made substantial strides in the promotion and creation of sexual assault prevention programs that can be employed within the district’s schools.
In 2014, they received a grant for $20,000 to expand their prevention programs for children starting in kindergarten and extending into the 12th grade. Rather than being required, however, these programs are selectively utilized only if independent school educators invite representatives from the crisis center to speak in their classrooms, as sexual assault prevention programs are not mandated in Ohio curriculum.
Similarly, the Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center offers additional sexual assault prevention programming, which can be utilized by school educators.
These efforts in the Cleveland area highlight the need to further expand sexual assault prevention programs into high schools across the Cleveland area.
Instead of behaving as a reactive community to sexual assault, let’s begin to view ourselves as a preventative one and institute policy to diminish sexual assault occurrences and consequential mental health crises.
We hope that this can provoke a dialogue on the importance of the universal implementation of sexual assault prevention courses taught by trained, knowledgeable educators — such as those at the rape crisis and child advocacy centers — for each high school student within the Cleveland schools.
By acknowledging education’s role in preventing sexual assault, we can positively impact the lives of our community members now and into the future by reducing the number of sexual assaults, thereby lessening individuals’ risks of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as suicide.
Jack Coffey and Kelly Papenfus are students at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Coffey is an intern at Bellefaire JCB’s school-based program and Papenfus is an intern at Cornerstone of Hope.