Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Sara Bradshaw: Prevention education through the lens of a prevention educator

Sara Bradshaw

When parents hear that an educator from Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services is coming to their child’s elementary school, they sometimes get alarmed. Our agency’s name alone can confuse people as to why we go into elementary schools.

The reason is to prevent future harm by teaching empathy, boundaries, consent, and problem solving skills as part of students’ educational curriculum. By introducing personal space and consent from a young age we are creating clear boundaries and expectations. In our lessons we go through real-life scenarios and talk through options for conflict resolution.

Working through the nuances of consent with simpler topics such as borrowing a pencil, or giving a friend a hug gives students a safe environment to learn what their boundaries are and to practice consent well before they’re at the age of having sexual relationships. Like with anything, handling the emotions that come with consent takes practice. Giving consent, not giving consent, not receiving consent when you want it, all takes practice.

Practicing consent in low-stakes scenarios, like asking a friend for a french fry, builds people’s confidence in themselves and increases their ability to manage their emotions.

At times SAPARS educators are invited into the classroom to provide lessons on issues that are currently happening within the school. If there is harassment going on with older grades we are able to have an in-depth, shame-free conversation on what harassment is and how it impacts others.

Oftentimes with elementary and middle school-aged people, they may not recognize how harmful some of their actions may be. These lessons don’t guarantee that every student is going to stop their harmful behavior, but it’s an opportunity once again to set firm expectations around how people should treat one another.

By having these discussions we’re also signaling to people in the classroom that their feelings matter. That they have a right to feel safe and that there are adults around them who want to help.

We’re also empowering bystanders to get involved in a way that is comfortable for them, whether that be through creating a distraction or making a direct statement in defense of the person who is being harassed. Sometimes all it takes is breaking apart a story and really focusing on the impact that someone’s actions can have on others to make positive social change in schools.

Seeing students throughout their primary school years also gives us the opportunity to build rapport. Having positive contact with our agency can create a more comfortable environment for students who may experience sexual assault as they get older and would like our support. By having spent time with the educators, and having been validated by them, we are better able to create comfort in scary and difficult conversations.

By the time students start developing closer relationships amongst their peers they already have a clear developed understanding of consent. They know that consent is ongoing and that people can change their minds. That being pressured into doing something isn’t consent.

They’ve worked through scenarios where someone wanted to say no to something (age appropriate) but was too scared, and we’ve talked through ways they can help those around them if they recognize that discomfort in others. They’ve had conversations on reading body language and about what they could do if someone’s words and body language don’t match up.

So yes, our conversations on personal space with kindergartners may seem short and unimportant at the time, but they are an introduction into so much more. These are the foundations to future conversations. The importance of having choices, and respecting people’s decisions, as well as where they can find support if decisions are not being respected.

We teach in schools to empower younger generations to treat each other well and to be able to recognize when it may be time to get some extra support.

Sara Bradshaw is a prevention educator / advocate with with Auburn-based Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Services.

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