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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Dr. Rob Butters, Ph.D, LCSW, sits in his office in West Valley City on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — The #MeToo movement has motivated adults to tell stories of unwanted sexual advances or assaults in the workplace and on college campuses. But the lesser-known #MeTooK12 has shown the relationship norms underlying sexual harassment develop long before men and women enter college or start their first job.

Research and education experts indicate kids say they face sexual harassment every day in school. They want to know how to say no, how to navigate relationships, and who they can trust when harassment happens.

So where do they get answers to these questions?

According to data collected by the Guttmacher Institute, many states have some form of "consent education" — teaching kids how to say no — as a part of sex education. Last March, Utah became the 22nd state to add "refusal skills" to its statewide sex education curriculum.

Heather Tuttle

But most states still don't mandate the topic. That leaves friends, media and parents to fill in the gap. Even in Utah where the schools will begin teaching how to say no, the goal is to supplement home instruction, not to take over.

"Every parent can talk to their kids about their feelings, and how to refuse, and how to get counseling," said Jodi Kaufman, specialist for the Health Education Team for the Utah State Board of Education. The home is where parents can discuss personal beliefs and family values, while school teachers are restricted to facts and information.

Data on students' interactions ranging from sexual harassment to rape show the time to discuss these issues is when children are young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among women and men who said they were raped, 40 percent and 21 percent, respectively, were first raped before they were 18. Estimates of the prevalence of sexual harassment in school vary depending on what the study includes, but the 2011 project, Crossing the Line, found 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 were sexually harassed during the 2010-2011 school year. Of those who experienced harassment, 87 percent said it negatively affected them.

Heather Tuttle

The Civil Rights Data Collection 2015-2016 report, the most recent available, said 41 percent of bullying incidents were sexual in nature — about as many as race, disability and religion combined. An additional 16 percent of bullying was directed towards sexual orientation.

The National School Climate Survey has consistently found that LGBT students face higher rates of sexual harassment and assault than other students. In 2011, the same year as the Crossing the Line study, 64 percent of LGBT students were sexually harassed.

The numbers are likely higher.

Studies show sexual harassment and assault are underreported to school officials. In stark contrast to surveys of young people, the American Association for Undergraduate Women analyzed the data collected for the Civil Rights Data Collection 2013-14 report and found that 79 percent of schools reported zero bullying and harassment incidents.

Aaron Thorup

Kids want to talk

Sitting on the edge of a fountain sparkling in the sun at an outdoor mall in Farmington, Utah, a group of students from Layton High School talked openly a couple of months ago with a reporter about sexual harassment — a subject they wished they learned about in school.

"I walk down the halls and hear guys make creepy comments about girls, about the things they've done with them," said Alexandra James, 16.

It's not just guys talking about girls, either, they said.

The teens described what they've seen: A girl runs her hand over a guy's leg under a library table. Boys tease other boys for not "doing it" with girls. During an assembly, a boy touches a girl's leg, and she doesn't stop him — but not because she likes it. She's afraid. James said she was clearly uncomfortable, but "I think she didn't want to be victim-blamed or make a scene."

As they talked, more of their friends stood close by, listening but refraining from chiming in.

"Most students don't tell anyone when things like that happen to them," Brecklyn Whittaker, 15, said. "It's embarrassing."

Others nodded in agreement.

Spencer Baron, 16, said if the girl in the assembly had spoken up, it's possible no one would believe her. "It becomes a war of words, a 'he said, she said.'"

A relationship with the harasser complicates things. "A lot of the times the people you think you know the best are the ones who do it," Baron said.

Before Utah lawmakers this year passed HB0286, modifying the sex-ed curriculum to include the harmful effects of pornography as well as refusal skills, these students didn't feel like there was a place to talk about these situations because sex education in Utah didn't cover what to do when someone makes an unwanted sexual advance.

"It's just about abstinence," James said. There's no relationship advice.

Baron said he feels like sexual relationships is a "taboo subject."

Although state education policy defers to parents as "the primary source of human sexuality instruction and values relating to this subject," these students weren't comfortable or confident about having a meaningful conversation about sexual harassment at home.

"I don't talk to my parents that much because I don't think they understand the severity of the problem," Baron said.

Sex-ed teaching skills

The new law in Utah gives a broad definition of refusal skills. Teachers will be required to teach how to say no to sexual advances as well as a student's responsibility to stop a sexual advance when rebuffed. According to the law, refusal skills will also cover what sexual harassment is and the rights of a student to report and seek counseling when they are harassed or assaulted.

Based on program evaluations that show it helps, the CDC recommends teaching healthy relationship skills, consent education, empowerment for women and bystander skills to prevent sexual violence.

Rob Butters, assistant professor at the University of Utah's College of Social Work and clinical director at Lifematters Counseling and Health Center, hopes that by teaching kids to say "stop that" or "I don't like that" and how to stop, we can change the cultural trends leading to sexually hostile environments. "We need to talk more openly about sex, what is consent, what's not, what's OK, what's not," Butters said.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Dr. Rob Butters, Ph.D, LCSW, right, speaks with Pat Gooley, LCSW, at Lifematters Counseling and Health Center in West Valley City on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

By doing that, students will build healthy relationship habits and ideals — the same habits they'll take to college and the workplace.

There is a spectrum of cultural violence, Butters said, that includes rape, inappropriate touching, sexual harassment and other inappropriate talk and action.

Butters said it is important that we address even seemingly minor incidents of sexual harassment, like a vulgar joke. For girls who face sexual harassment daily, accumulating small events make a difference.

"It really starts to shape how she views the world and how men are, and it shapes what you think is acceptable. We start to think that's the new norm," he said.

Accepting such small events as a part of everyday life contributes to what experts call "rape culture," and it affects how both men and women view themselves. Those who repeatedly face sexual harassment, or even one incident of sexual assault, are more likely to develop substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and even thoughts of suicide.

Besides consent education in K-12 schools, Butters said he would like to see the bystander training happening on college campuses come to high schools and younger students. He would especially like to see boys taught how to stand up for women and for themselves.

"Men have to be part of this dialogue. This is not a woman's problem, this is a cultural problem," Butters said.

The parents' role

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Dr. Rob Butters, Ph.D, LCSW, sits in his office at Lifematters Counseling and Health Center in West Valley City on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

In Utah, schools teach sex education as a part of a broader health education course, but parents must give consent for the sex education components. They can OK all topics, some topics, request to review course materials or opt their children out entirely.

Local schools can choose a less-comprehensive curriculum than state law allows, but they must teach community and personal health, physiology, hygiene, prevention of communicable diseases (including sexually transmitted) and, beginning this year, refusal skills and the harmful effects of pornography.

The parental consent and district policy restrictions may be one reason students think talking about sexual relationships is "taboo" at school. Before the law changed, teachers could only address sexual harassment or navigating sexual encounters if a student asked a direct question.

"I don't think that teachers will feel like their hands are tied, because they have parental consent to discuss it," Kaufman said of the new curriculum. Although the State Board of Education is still writing the new core standards for refusal education, the topic is already on consent sheets, and health education teachers will add it to their curriculum this fall.

She said a draft of the core standards could be available for public comment as early as this fall.

Kaufman believes Utah's health education teachers are ready for the change. "These are skilled educators. I don't think that we're asking them to teach things that they have no idea about. They are well equipped to teach this."

In Butters' experience, parents have a harder time talking about sex and sexuality than their kids.

"A teenager who is developing these feelings, which is very normal, they're going to need guidance and if you're not going to provide it, they're going to get it somewhere else," he said.

One of those places is the media. Butters said what children learn about sex from the media is "sensationalized. It's meant to entertain, and it's not realistic."

As more students get phones and internet access at earlier ages, sexting and cyberbullying have come with it. Crossing the Line found that 1 in 5 students received unwanted sexual jokes, comments, or pictures electronically in a single school year.

Studies have found that parents do have a lot of influence, but too often parents put off "the talk" until after kids initiate sexual activity. A survey for Power to Decide, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent teen pregnancy, found that for individuals ages 12-15, 52 percent said their parents most influenced their decisions about sex. But that percentage drops as children age. For ages 20-21, only 16 percent said parents were the biggest influence.

"If parents would just talk to their kids, a lot of therapists would be out of business," Butters said.

In his practice, Butters tries to educate parents on how to talk to their kids.

"If you shut kids down when they come to you at first, if you try to teach them a lesson when they open up to you, you've missed the boat." Instead he said, ask for more detail, acknowledge their vulnerability, and then you can talk. Help them come to conclusions on their own and don't make them feel guilty.

Butters has made sure his kids feel comfortable coming to him. "My kids will just bring up stuff at the dinner table," he said. "They know they just need to say, 'Dad, can I talk to you about something that happened to me today?'"

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Studies show that children with a close relationship with a parent are more likely to delay sexual activity, are less vulnerable to violence, and are more resilient when they experience trauma.

The students from Layton High School said they have a pretty good idea about how to prevent sexual harassment. "We need to talk about it," they told the Deseret News.

"It needs to come out of the shadows," said Baron.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Rob Butters as director of the Utah Criminal Justice Center at the University of Utah's College of Social Work. He recently stepped down from that post after seven years.