A Peer-to-Peer Approach to Promoting Healthy Relationships and Equality
How student voice can build a school culture that works to stop sexual violence
When students speak up about sexual violence and harassment, their peers listen. That’s what Ophea and three partner organizations Draw-the-Line, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, and White Ribbon, along with support from The Students Commission of Canada, discovered when they rolled out Campaign Messengers. Campaign Messengers arose from a provincial roundtable brought together by Status of Women Canada during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.
The initiative—which aimed to help 105 elementary and secondary schools in Ontario build their capacity to address the root causes of sexual violence and harassment—has now come to an end. However, the momentum it generated is still going strong, and with the growing strength of the #MeToo and #TimesUp social media campaigns and the media attention they have generated, there’s never been a better time to talk to students about issues surrounding sexual violence… or better yet, to get them talking to each other!
It’s important to engage students in conversations about consent and healthy relationships early and often!
One in three women in Ontario experiences sexual violence in their lifetime[i], and teaching students the importance of healthy relationships and equality is key to prevention. “You’re never too young to learn how to treat others with respect,” says Veronique Church-Duplessis, Bilingual Project Manager for White Ribbon—an organization that works to engage men and boys in promoting gender equality and preventing violence in their own lives, and a partner in the Campaign Messengers initiative.
Campaign Messengers was aimed at elementary and secondary school students alike because learning to develop and maintain healthy relationships is a skill that takes practice, like any other skill. Likewise, the concept of consent builds along a continuum. It doesn’t need to begin with conversations about sexuality, although it should lead there over time. “If you don’t understand the concept of consent when it comes to pulling hair or taking Lego, how are you going to understand it as a teenager when you’ve got technology, alcohol and many other factors involved?” says Sarah Christie, Bilingual Projects Leader for Ophea.
Adding student voice takes lessons about healthy relationships to the next level.
Themes like healthy relationships, respect, and consent are highlighted in the updated elementary and secondary H&PE curriculum, and the Accepting Schools Act requires school boards to prevent and address inappropriate and disrespectful behaviours among students, including bullying, discrimination and harassment. Students are already hearing messages about healthy relationships and consent from their teachers and school administrators, but these types of messages become even more powerful when they’re delivered by peers. “They listen to each other differently than they listen to adults. When it comes to grassroots, sustained change, you need students on board,” says Christie. “It takes it beyond the classroom… but it also takes it beyond the school. If they’re at a party or at a sports game, hopefully these students will be more aware and more confident in calling out behaviour that they know isn’t okay.”
Of course, before students could act as Campaign Messengers, it was important to provide them with the skills to lead conversations respectfully, and to ensure that strong adult allies were in place to help them navigate any tricky situations that arose.
Initially, it wasn’t easy to get buy-in from schools and teachers. “These can be hard conversations and challenging topics,” says Christie, “especially when you bring students into it.” However, right from the first training session, she was impressed with the extent to which teachers trusted and respected their students’ points of view. “It was really heartening,” she says. “It would be easy to say, ‘that’s too far’ ‘that’s too much’ and they didn’t.” In fact, students and their teacher-allies left the training session with new insights and ideas that they were eager to share with their schools in creative ways.
Once equipped with skills and support, participating students gained valuable leadership skills as they practised role modelling and peer-to-peer interaction. “One student said, ‘If I can talk about this in front of my peers I can talk about anything!’” laughs Christie.
Student creativity can lead to lasting change.
Students were then tasked with developing creative ways to spread messages about sexual violence and harassment prevention throughout their school.
One group of high school students chose to use Draw-the-Line Campaign resources, which are made up of postcards/memes with conversation starters on them. For example: “Your favourite singer assaulted his girlfriend. Do you download his new single?” “Degrading graffiti about a trans student appears on a bathroom wall. Do you report it?”
The group drew a line using chalk where the busses unloaded in the morning. They greeted students with the scenarios to spark discussion. They later hosted a free smoothie day where they wrote positive messages on each cup to generate discussion.
Meanwhile, at the elementary level, two Grade 7 students made presentations to Grade 4–8 classes about gender identity, gender expression, and gender-based violence. The presentations were well received; but several weeks later, the student leaders came across posters on the walls advertising an upcoming school dance. The posters suggested that boys should wear suits, while girls should come in pretty dresses.
“The students reflected, re-evaluated, and decided to challenge the norms they were seeing expressed,” says Christie. They went back to do more presentations… this time for younger students, in hopes that gender-stereotypes could be dispelled before they had a chance to take hold. The team of students brought in gift bags purchased from a dollar store. One had a princess on it, and one had a super-hero. They asked Grade 2 students to guess what they might find in each, then had them reach in for a surprise that reflected the fact that what’s inside doesn’t always match what’s outside. “It was a simple but creative and very visual way of exploring gender expression with young students,” says Christie.
Resources are readily available.
The schools who participated came away with networks, resources, knowledge, and a broader understanding of sexual violence that will carry them forward should they choose to continue working on these issues. “I think a lot of them realized how systemic this is,” says Christie. “It’s not always about physical violence. A lot of times, people in general think assault, they think rape… but this helped schools to really look at those things that we just accept and take for granted in society, and to make those part of the discussion as well.”
If your school would like to explore sexual violence prevention, there are a wealth of resources available to help you get started. A series of Campaign Messengers webinars is available on Ophea’s YouTube channel. Topics include consent, respect, healthy and toxic masculinities, and gender.
Ophea has also developed Ideas for Action: Growth and Development, which can be downloaded free-of-charge. It walks students and adult allies through planning and implementing activities related to growth and development topics (such as body image, diversity, healthy relationships, human development and sexual health, living skills, self-efficacy, and self-esteem). The resource gives ideas for activities that can be used or adapted—including visual art installations, performance pieces like flash mobs, spreading the word via social media and more!
“The Draw-the-Line guide for educators can be downloaded on the White Ribbon website, or teachers can request a hard copy,” says Church-Duplessis. “We also have professional development workshops for schools and do school presentations for students around healthy masculinity for a small fee.”
Schools who are looking for a framework to help them put a school-wide campaign in place may also consider registering for Ophea Healthy Schools Certification; a 6-step process that supports and increases the capacity of schools across Ontario to address a priority health topic. The program opens every September and runs through the school year.
Campaign Messengers comes to an end, but the conversation will continue…
“We recently heard one example of a school that has enacted a school-wide plan. Hearing stories about work that continues beyond us is really exciting,” says Christie. After all, sexual violence prevention is a vast topic. “You can’t tackle this all in one go,” Christie adds. “As a school, you need to begin by asking yourself where you’re starting and how you’re going to build from there.”
What’s more, as students grow through different ages and stages, it’s a topic that will evolve with them. “I think now that people are getting more comfortable, there’s space for more courageous conversations,” concludes Church-Duplessis. And through one courageous conversation at a time, real change is taking place.