To Prevent Sexual Assault, Schools And Parents Start Lessons Early While most college students go through courses aimed at preventing campus sexual assault, advocates say it's too little, too late. Some are pushing for similar efforts as early as elementary school.
NPR logo

To Prevent Sexual Assault, Schools And Parents Start Lessons Early

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
To Prevent Sexual Assault, Schools And Parents Start Lessons Early

To Prevent Sexual Assault, Schools And Parents Start Lessons Early

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you're a freshmen heading to college this fall, chances are you'll undergo some kind of crash course aimed at preventing campus sexual assault. But for many, it is too little too late. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, there's a growing push for efforts like this to start in high school or even younger.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: If colleges are the hunting ground, as they've been called, for sexual predators, advocates say high schools are the breeding ground and any solution must start there.


BOB KRAFT: I have a couple granddaughters in college. And, you know, I'm just thinking, holy mackerel - let's get to the root of it.


SMITH: That's New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft who recently put up half a million dollars and his team's star power to expand a dating violence prevention program called MVP into high schools.


KRAFT: It's about respect and listening. We have to make this cool.

DANNY RYAN: He talked about cool. That's - yeah, that's as cool as it gets, definitely.

SMITH: Danny Ryan - he'll be a junior at Lincoln-Sudbury High School (ph) - was one of hundreds of students star-struck by Kraft and big-name players boosting the program that teaches teens about healthy relationships, how to spot the risky ones and how to intervene to help another student in a jam. Recent Lincoln-Sudbury grad Otto Zaccardo says the training has already enabled him to do that for a friend.

OTTO ZACCARDO: That could've been the next situation. But it was stopped and taken care of and completely - in her words, changed this young woman's life. And it just made all the difference.

SMITH: High-profile cases of sexual assault from elite prep schools to public middle and high schools have underscored the problem in younger grades. Close to a hundred elementary and secondary schools are now being investigated for Title IX violations. That's two and a half times what it was a year ago. Zaccardo says attitudes need to be adjusted when kids are young.

ZACCARDO: It starts to be a part of your culture. So by the time you get to college, it's second nature. It's already hardwired into our brain.

PAUL SCHEWE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, college is just way too late.

SMITH: University of Illinois professor Paul Schewe, who studies violence prevention, says even within high school, programs are less effective each passing year. So for example, what works well on ninth-graders has only about a third the impact on 12th-graders.

SCHEWE: It just makes sense. When kids go through puberty, that's when their ideas about sex and beliefs and behaviors are forming. And so that's really a critical period.

SMITH: Schewe says the conversation really should start even younger. Indeed, Kate Rohdenburg, who runs a violence prevention program in Vermont and New Hampshire called WISE, says even 5 and 6-year-olds can be taught basic principles of boundaries and autonomy.

KATE ROHDENBURG: So of course, we're not saying the word antonymous to kindergartners. But we talk about, who here likes hugs? And some kids raised their hand, and some don't. Well, how are we supposed to know if this person wants a hug when they're feeling sad or not? And kindergartners will tell you that you should ask them (laughter).

SMITH: A growing number of states are now mandating public schools have some sort of education around sexual assault. Nine passed new laws in the past year and a half, bringing the total to about 25. And nationally, a law now encourages it.


TIM KAINE: I would like it to move more over into the you have to do it - you can do it your way, but you have to do it.

SMITH: That's bill co-sponsor, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, now the Democratic nominee for vice president.


KAINE: Look, there's traditional skittishness about sex ed in the K-12 system.

KEVIN FOX: I think schools, in dealing with situations like this, are probably where colleges were 10 to 15 years ago.

SMITH: Kevin Fox is a former Massachusetts high school counselor who says he was forced to resign after criticizing his school's handling of sexual assault allegations. He says high schools are not only missing the best window of opportunity to curb the problem, he says they're actually exacerbating it.

FOX: I think these kids go off to college and - you know, I got away with it once, I can get away with it again. I mean, it's a classic, I think, dynamic that occurs.



UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) No. No. No.

SMITH: Self-defense classes for girls is another approach schools are taking to attack sexual assault...


GROUP: (Chanting) No. No. No...

SMITH: Many advocates bristle at the female focus, saying that putting the onus on women to fend off an attack is a kind of victim-blaming. But in Watertown, Mass., where self-defense is one of three different prevention programs in place, school superintendent Jean Fitzgerald says the approach must be part of any solution.

JEAN FITZGERALD: We're trying to make sure that the girls don't become a victim. We're not blaming the victims. And there's nothing wrong with teaching someone how to keep yourself safe.

DEBRA ROBBIN: It's a challenging question because I'm a parent also. And I...

SMITH: Debra Robbin, from the violence prevention group Jane Doe, Inc., says ultimately, the answer is different for parents and policymakers, who she says can't send girls the message that it's on them to stop sexual assault, whether by fighting back, drinking less or anything else.

ROBBIN: A public health strategy looks at who is perpetrating, and that's really where our efforts need to be. But what you're going to tell your child is a different thing. Of course, we want to say those things.

SMITH: And increasingly, parents are. Regardless of how much schools address the issue, more parents are taking it upon themselves to keep their sons and daughters from becoming victims or perpetrators. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this report, we misstate Kate Rohdenburg's role. She runs a violence prevention program for a group called WISE. She does not run a program called WISE.]

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.