SHAWNEE MISSION EAST HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS from left, Katie Kuhlman, Katherine Crossette, Natalie Roth, Hannah Breckenridge, Kendall Dunbar, Ireland Hague and Brena Levy stand for a photo in front of their campus in Prairie Village, Kan., on May 15, 2017. The friends organized a campaign to wear black clothing to class in hopes of drawing attention to the issue of school sexual assault after girl reported being attacked by a male student in a bathroom the previous fall.

SHAWNEE MISSION EAST HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS from left, Katie Kuhlman, Katherine Crossette, Natalie Roth, Hannah Breckenridge, Kendall Dunbar, Ireland Hague and Brena Levy stand for a photo in front of their campus in Prairie Village, Kan., on May 15, 2017. The friends organized a campaign to wear black clothing to class in hopes of drawing attention to the issue of school sexual assault after girl reported being attacked by a male student in a bathroom the previous fall.

FOREST GROVE, Ore.

A pair of Oregon school districts were intent on identifying warning signs that students might be contemplating a campus shooting when they stumbled on a threat far more pervasive yet much less discussed — sexual aggression among classmates.

So the districts adapted the same early-intervention approach used to handle potential school shooters: Based on observations or tips, staff now quietly keep an eye on kids they worry are sexually aggressive. The school enlists parents to understand why the child is acting out and intervenes if behavior threatens to escalate, whether the student is a kindergartener or about to graduate.

This awakening puts the districts at the forefront of grassroots efforts to grapple with a sensitive and complex challenge that elementary and secondary schools mostly avoid.

A yearlong Associated Press investigation uncovered about 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults by students over a recent four-year period, a figure that doesn’t fully capture the problem because such violence is greatly under-reported and some states don’t track it. There is no K-12 equivalent to the federal law that requires colleges to track sexual assaults, provide services to victims and devise prevention programs.

The AP also found that only 18 states required training for teachers, school administrators or students focused on peer-on-peer sexual assaults.

To fill the void, technology companies have joined school districts, students and parents in trying novel solutions.

“I think it’s important — we all do — to show that sexual assault can affect every single person, no matter who they are, no matter what their story is,” said Brena Levy, a high school senior and student organizer in Kansas.

In Oregon’s Forest Grove School District, administrators who were scanning for threats encountered situations such as unwanted groping that they didn’t know how to handle.

“The principals were just asking ‘What should we do?’” said Kimberley Shearer, coordinator for the new Sexual Incident Response Committee at the 6,000-student district, located between Portland and the Pacific Ocean.

Experts who have treated young sexual offenders stress the value of early intervention, and research cites the importance of a culture that encourages students to report incidents without fear of retaliation. That kind of trust is essential in Forest Grove, where school officials have learned the difference between age-appropriate experimentation and dangerous sexual behavior, Shearer said. Officials can monitor social media, but the kids know what’s really going on.

To discuss the more serious cases, a group of school administrators meets regularly in the basement of district headquarters with local law enforcement and child protection officials, as well as a psychologist. The program not only helps victims, but also counsels students who are sexually aggressive.

Student welfare is one concern. Legal exposure is another. If school officials do nothing after learning of an assault — even one off-campus — and the student attacks someone else, a lawsuit could be devastating.

Forest Grove’s program follows the pioneering work of the much-larger Salem- Keizer School District, which developed the sexual incident committee model in 2009.

Another approach to increase safety involves “bystander intervention.” The concept is to create a retaliation-free atmosphere that encourages students to raise their voices not just if they see an assault, but also if they spot disrespectful behavior that could escalate.

In Kentucky, an organization known as Green Dot has been preaching an intolerance for violence using positive peer pressure, much the same way designated driver campaigns focus not on blame but rather on safe solutions.

Research published this year suggests the approach is working. Surveys of nearly 90,000 Kentucky high school students show sexual violence decreased significantly where a district implemented the program.

Meanwhile, millions of students are using apps to send anonymous text messages and photographs to school administrators. Because school officials can communicate in real time with whoever is reporting an incident, they can step in immediately.

Students also have begun organizing on their own, prodding reluctant school districts to respond.

Last September, police began investigating after a Kansas district received a report a boy had attacked a girl in a school bathroom. Students and parents found out a week later, when the local news broke the story; the district said it didn’t go public because no one else was at risk.

A group of students at Shawnee Mission East High School in suburban Kansas City rallied classmates to wear black clothing the next day. Several hundred students participated — as did more than a dozen other schools. The students kept going, leading assemblies and inviting speakers to discuss consent and sexual violence.

In Oklahoma, sustained student pressure led a district to hire victim advocates.

Three girls said that after they reported being assaulted, they were harassed by other students and had to leave Norman High School because officials did nothing to stop the bullying, according to a lawsuit they settled with the district. The district said it investigated, suspended the boy accused and responded to one bullying case.

Students remained concerned and as many as 600 walked out of class in November 2014 and lined several city blocks, where they were joined by local residents.

Days later, the superintendent of Norman Public Schools, Joe Siano, announced changes, including new advocates at both district high schools, and the district has since added two more advocates for its four middle schools.

Sexual assault cases can be challenging — especially if they’re off-campus, as most of the Norman attacks were — and Siano said he has come to understand that the district could have done a better job handling the girls’ trauma.

“If student voices don’t impact how you … make decisions,” Siano said, “then I think you’re probably in the wrong business.”


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