Arlington high school hosts #MeToo conversation to raise awareness on sexual assault and harassment

The #MeToo movement has made national and international headlines over the last year. It is aimed at putting an end to sexual assault and harassment. In Virginia, Yorktown High School in Arlington hosted a meeting for students called #MeToo: What Men, Boys, and Everyone Need to Know.

Nearly half of eighth, 10th and 12th grade girls in Arlington Public Schools have reported experiencing sexual harassment at school - a place where they should expect to feel safe. Student leaders were joined along with local officials and experts at this event as students explained what they have heard firsthand on what female students are facing.

"We recently had a lot of issues with particularly eighth grade boys groping and also accompanying that with verbal comments about girls' clothing," said one student.

"There were many upperclassmen, seniors, people who are going to college next year who didn't understand that you can't give consent when you're not sober," said another female student.

"Even those small comments, those small derogatory comments toward people's appearance or sexuality and things like that. Those are part of the big system that also includes things like rape and sexual assault, and so we would just like to start that conversation and bring that awareness because these are often issues that people are afraid to talk about," another student said.

These students are part of the countywide Healthy Relationships Task Force. It is just one of organizations that participated in Thursday night's discussion.

Arlington County's police chief and the commonwealth's attorney were in attendance and they made the point that when an incident rises to the level where they are involved, it's too late. The focus on this night was on prevention.

"We know that services for survivors are important, but it's equally important for us to get upstream on this issue," said Cheryl Bozarth of Arlington's Project PEACE.

While the results of the Arlington Youth Risk Behavior Survey are alarming, Project PEACE said it is not surprising. They are making a multi-year push for awareness in the county.

"While those numbers seem startling, there is a possibility that they may be underreported given what we know nationally," said Bozarth.

Scholar and activist Dr. Jackson Katz spoke to the group of more than 100 students and parents Thursday night about how systemic change is needed. He said it is not a gender-specific problem. Sexual harassment and abuse is everyone's problem.

He said it often begins at home with perpetrators being victims or exposed to abuse themselves. He spoke about fathers and male role models sending a message - not only by what they say, but through actions as well. He provided a reminder that kids notice the way you treat other family members and everyone in general.

But there are also societal issues. The biggest takeaway in this is the "bystander approach" -encouraging young men and women to be leaders when they are hanging out among their peers.

"Not the external agent of authority coming into the peer culture to remove the offending party, but to get the kids in the peer culture to make it clear - you can't treat kids like this. This is not okay. We are not impressed by this behavior at all. In fact, you have some issues," Katz said. "And the goal is to get the kids around the kid experiencing the bullying to make it clear to that kid that we don't like what is happening to you. This is not cool and we want to help you."

Dr. Katz went on to explain that it is not just about intervening in the moment when something is happening, but changing the culture. At any time where sexist beliefs or attitudes are being shared, it's up to young men or women to step up and say that that is not right and they are not going to stand for it.