3 Nov 2023

Schools struggling to deal with sexual violence

From Nine To Noon, 7:08 pm on 3 November 2023

An advocate for sex consent education says she is shocked at how many high school students were not protected adequately by their schools when they shared experiences of sexual assault.

ENSCHEDE, THE NETHERLANDS - 02 FEB, 2015: Students are walking through a hallway with lockers on a high school

Photo: 123RF

A report by Let's Talk Consent collected testimonies from 300 students who were victims of sexual assault at school.

The experiences they shared included examples of sexual harassment, blackmail, rape and pack assault. 

The founder of Let's Talk Consent, and the report's author, Genna Hawkins-Boulton, told Nine to Noon victims were confident reporting their assaults, but often still found themselves in the same classes as perpetrators.

It was "really shocking" that people who had received consent education, recognised their experience as sexual assault and who had reported "the person that had hurt them" to their school were not being offered pathways to restorative justice, she said.

"It was just quite alarming to see how schools are really struggling to uphold their duty of care in this regard."

The report recommends more training so staff can better support victims, revising guidelines so there is a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence and making consent-based education compulsory.

Schools were not adequately prepared to handle disclosures of sexual assault, Hawkins-Boulton said, meaning there was a lack of support for those who came forward to report abuse.

"I don't think there's enough disclosure training ... it's quite a tough environment to be in for a survivor."

She said in one of the testimonies Let's Talk Consent collected, a survivor of sexual abuse had approached their school detailing the abuse and the mental health impacts it had had on them - which included panic attacks at least four times a week, and a suicide attempt.

Despite this, the person was placed in two classes the following year with the person who had hurt them.

They were also offered a counselling session with the perpetrator, something Hawkins-Boulton described as "just a big 'no' in terms of thinking about retraumatisation in survivors".

The experience ultimately led them "to leave that school and to go somewhere else, and that was a massive disruption to their learning," she said.

Another concern the report picked up on was the amount of victim-blaming sexual abuse survivors experienced, not only from their peers, but also sometimes from staff.

"That's when the disclosure training would [be] really crucial, because you just never want to put the onus on the victim for coming forward."

Ease of access to pornography 'incredibly dangerous'

Making consent-based education compulsory was important in a world where pornography was "extremely accessible", Hawkins-Boulton said.

The Let's Talk Consent report referenced a study by the Light Project in 2018, which found that 75 percent of New Zealand 14- 17-year-olds had seen pornography, 73 percent of young people that watched it stated they used it as a learning resource, 70 percent of young people believed watching pornography influenced them to view women as sex objects, and 35 percent of pornographic scenes showed coercion. 

"People aren't learning about consent in the classroom," Hawkins-Boulton said.

"They're learning about consent in pornography and in many ways, pornography doesn't show consent at all - it like glamorises sexual assault - and so that is incredibly dangerous."

Young people's consumption of pornography was a "heavy topic to really grapple with", she conceded, but both schools and parents should be having those tough conversations with students around pornography literacy.

Hawkins-Boulton said implementation of the report's recommendation to revise guidelines so there was a zero-tolerance approach by schools to sexual violence would provide students with guidance for the rest of their lives.

"We have to think about what kind of example we are setting for young people, and schools are an environment where tweens kind of grow into young adulthood," she said.

"We have to really create a culture where there is a zero tolerance of sexual violence."


Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason. 
Lifeline: 0800 543 354  or text HELP to 4357
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If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Sexual Violence

NZ Police
Victim Support: 0800 842 846
Rape Crisis: 0800 88 33 00
Rape Prevention Education
Empowerment Trust
HELP: Call 24/7 (Auckland): 09 623 1700, (Wellington): 04 801 6655 - push 0 at the menu
Safe to Talk: A 24/7 confidential helpline for survivors, support people and those with harmful sexual behaviour: 0800 044 334
Male Survivors Aotearoa
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: (SNAP) 022 344 0496

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