This November, GDS hosted the third annual Summit on Sexual Assault and Consent. The Addressing Sexual Assault and Consent track was added to the GDS Policy Institute in 2015 and the summit has since grown to become a national event that drew over 350 students, teachers and parents from 40 schools in seven states this year.
The students from the Summer Policy Institute worked tirelessly over the summer to organize the summit, contacting presenters, coordinating logistics, exploring how best to engage attendees and refining the key messages they wanted the day to convey. Student leaders chose to get involved with the summit for a variety of reasons.
Senior Owen Killy says he was motivated to help organize the summit because he heard a lot about the Policy Institute from upperclassman friends. He said he chose the Sexual Assault and Consent track after learning about the “Consent Is” campaign.
Sophomore Alani Cox-Caceres reflected on her decision to get involved in the Policy Institute.
“I decided to do the Policy Institute because we go to a school that has so many different opportunities and I feel like being here it’s my job to utilize those opportunities,” she said.
Summit participants heard accounts of survival from people who had experienced sexual assault and interacted with speakers ranging from civil rights activists to prosecutors to victims’ rights advocates and experts on teen activism.
While coordinating logistics and creating a dynamic agenda took many months of work, students from the Policy Institute remained focused on creating a central message for the summit.
Amy Killy, high school counselor and head of the consent track of the Policy Institute, explained that while sexual assault and consent are complicated and nuanced topics, “the core of this issue is all about humanity and dignity and empathy and being a good every day advocate and that, if nothing else, is what students and teachers should take away from the summit.”
Summit student organizers said that treating others with dignity and becoming effective advocates are essential to making progress on issues of sexual assault and consent.
Owen Killy spoke candidly about how much work the GDS community still has to do to combat ignorance about sexual assault.
“Just walking in the hallways and locker rooms, there are always rape jokes and misogynistic jokes circulating,” he said. “And these jokes really just add to the rape culture that we do live in.”
This culture, however, can begin to change if people are willing to call out their friends when they make an offensive joke or comment and if they are willing to speak up for the dignity of others.
“The first step in changing the toxic rape culture is understanding that culture change is needed,” Killy added.
Cox-Caceres said the fellows of the Policy Institute hope to bring some of the speakers and presenters from the summit to address the whole school community so all students and teachers can learn more about sexual assault. There is no question that more people need to be brought into this discussion, and young men can play a unique role.
“I was taken aback by the young men who attended the summit’s willingness to be involved in the issue but not take over and have their voices be the only ones heard,” Cox- Caceres said.
While sexual assault remains a serious problem — one in four women and one in six men are affected by sexual violence in their lifetime according to the Center for Disease Control — progress is being made. Over the past three years, the summit organizers have highlighted the issues of consent and sexual assault, amplified the voices of survivors and educated hundreds of summit participants. Survivors are telling their stories and being heard, learning that it is not their fault.
“Education is the only way to move past ignorance,” Cox-Caceres said. “By opening up the summit to participants from around the country, we are setting these people up to educate their schools.”
Spreading awareness and education is the first step in the long fight to end sexual assault and teach consent, but Cox-Caceres spoke optimistically about the uphill battle.
“It’s not bigger than us. It is something that we can overcome,” she said. The GDS Summit of Sexual Assault and Consent is a huge step in that direction.