Madison East High School's "Expect Respect" workshop participants pose for a photo during a recent session. 

Sexual harassment can be hard to talk about, but Madison East High School students are working to overcome the culture of silence around it.

The Rape Crisis Center's workshop, “Expect Respect,” aims to develop youth leaders through conversations around healthy relationships. Facilitators hope talking with teens about sensitive topics like bullying and rape culture will help them feel comfortable advocating for themselves and their peers when they encounter it.

Heather Chun, prevention and evaluation specialist at the RCC and the Expect Respect facilitator, said it is important to talk to middle and high school students about relationships and how to speak up when they feel unsafe.

“If we have that groundwork, it will make it easier for them to build healthy relationships instead of having existing relationships and having to fix them,” Chun said. “Individual students are figuring out who they are... there is so much self growth. I think introducing social justice and empowering relationships is really important.”

The Rape Crisis Center adapted the curriculum from Stop Abuse for Everyone, an Austin-based nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. Chun said she bolstered the program to include more discussions around power dynamics and identity to fit the mission of East's Gender Equity Club, the student group RCC’s partners with for the workshop.

“Something that I emphasize in the program is anti-oppression work, privilege and status and how they affect relationships,” Chun said. “They are so smart. I am always really impressed by the students, especially their willingness and desire to get involved. They want things to do.”

The Rape Crisis Center also teaches a similar class at Oregon High School.

The topic on a recent Tuesday session at East was how to speak out against sexual harassment. The students talked about how to identify sexual harassment, what they should do to support survivors of sexual harassment, and aspects of our society that can make it difficult for survivors to share their stories.

Students were very frank and openly discussed how sexual harassment affected them and their friends. Carlos, 17, is a senior at East, and said some people are hesitant to come forward after they’ve experienced sexual harassment, so safe spaces are needed to have those conversations.

“Unfortunately, communication is so taboo... we need to start creating environments like this where people are comfortable talking about things that they normally wouldn’t,” Carlos said.

Students were reflective, recalling times they said or did things that made others uncomfortable. Chun reminded the group that the process of unlearning oppressive behaviors can be long and difficult and requires consistent work.

“This is a very informed, consent-based, radical group of people and even we catch ourselves,” she told the group.

Amanda Pustz is a history teacher at East and advises the Gender Equity Club. She said she hopes students leave the five-week workshop equipped with the tools they need to be an ally for others.

“I would love for them to go out and make a change not only at East High, but in the larger community,” she said. “I’d like them to be inspired and knowledgeable to go make a difference.”

Chun said the workshop encourages students to take action. Students role-play scenarios so they know how to de-escalate a situation or safely intervene to help someone else. She also likes to make sure students can access other people or resources for help.

When the group discussed Title IX and how schools are legally obligated to follow-up on harassment allegations, Chun shared the contact information for MMSD’s Title IX investigator, Eric Kestin.

“I 100 percent understand why students feel alone, but remember, your school has to help you,” Chun said.

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