Initial steps to reduce teenage sexual violence are working

In August, San Juan County Attorney Kendall Laws brought attention to the community about a concerning increase of sexual violence cases among teens in the county.

In the year before August 2020, the County Attorney’s Office has or is currently prosecuting 47 crimes of sexual violence, with 38 of those 47 crimes involving students in the San Juan School District.

The figures are only for the northern portion of the county, as crimes committed on the Navajo Nation fall under a different legal jurisdiction.

Laws shared data points such as those above and others to signify the concerning trend to the San Juan County School Board at their August meeting.

Since that time, a host of community leaders have been working together to address the issue.

The county attorney’s office, local nonprofit Seek Haven, the San Juan School District, at least five different religious organizations, elected officials, and others have all been collaborating to resolve the issue.

In the three months since that time, the county attorney’s office has seen an increase of reported incidents of an additional 25 percent.

“Most are delayed reports, so we’re hopeful that we’re maybe catching up and we can stay ahead of it,” Laws said at the November 4 meeting of the school board. “With everybody being on board with educating community members from youth all the way up through the parents and other adults in the community, we’re hopeful we can stay ahead of it.”

At the August meeting of the school board, Laws offered three suggestions to the school district to help aid in the community effort to curb the growth of sexual violence amongst San Juan County teens.

At the November meeting, the school district reported on how they had incorporated those suggestions.

The first suggestion Laws gave was to form a student coalition, allowing students to weigh in and keep school staff up to date on issues.

The schools have had youth coalition groups for the past few years in the secondary schools, as well as more simplistic prevention groups for elementary students.

San Juan Student Services Director Trevor Olsen explains the groups focus on a variety of issues, including prevention of bullying, sexual assault, substance abuse, dropout and suicide.

Leadership of each of the Youth Coalitions is peer nominated at each school and all students are invited to participate in activities which mostly focus on prevention efforts in the school.

The coalitions are also active in the schools south of Blanding, where students are meeting virtually with advisors.

Olsen says the student coalitions are currently collecting assessment data, building capacity, planning, implementing and evaluating prevention efforts in the school. The coalitions will present to school administrators when they are done.

Assistant Superintendent Julie Holt reports as part of the “Hope” weeks at ARL Middle School and Monticello and San Juan high schools, the students participated in peer discussions after watching age-appropriate videos that discuss sexual harassment.

Parents were sent a letter from the superintendent before the students viewed the video. Parents could also watch the videos.

Laws told the board he heard good things regarding the peer discussions from two teachers at Monticello High School. He did share that one teacher who led a discussion with older students had trouble with those students taking the topic seriously.

Holt reports the district was very intentional about their planning. “Teachers felt more supported about what and how they should address,” she said. “We had great discussions at staff level, and positive feedback on student level.”

One district employee at the meeting said their teenage student came home and brought up the discussion unprompted.

The second suggestion from Laws to the school board was to solicit teachers to receive training from organizations, such as the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, that can help teachers know how to handle reports of sexual abuse.

Instead of singling out teachers to receive the training, the district has instead held staff discussion and instruction sessions, empowering all teachers to fulfill their roles as mandatory reporters.

The third recommendation from Laws was to provide self-defense training to students through a course offered by the county sheriff’s department.

Holt reported the district is in contact with the sheriff’s office and ready to host the trainings in their buildings.

At the meeting, Laws thanked the district for their continued collaboration as he and Human Resources Director Matt Keyes have been meeting at least weekly on the phone.

“I think we’re on the right track,” said Laws. “I appreciate the school district jumping on board and running with it as well.”

Laws added, “It’s something that’s not a couple months fix. I think we’re talking years in order to reverse the course. Hopefully it’s faster than that but I think we’re on the right track.”

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