Every few weeks, about a dozen teens gather in their classmate Bella’s living room in Ashland, Oregon. Like the members of the Breakfast Club who came 15 years before they were born, they’re from different cliques: The group mixes jocks with nerds, kids who’ve never been in trouble and those who have, gay and straight. They watch movies, order pizza, hang out, and talk about the thing that brought them together: sexual assault.
Some of the group members were abused as little kids, while others were sexually assaulted in high school by people they still see around town. They keep the membership private, because some still haven’t told their other friends that they were victimized. When they have a rough day, the group, which these teens call the “Survivors Circle,” is only a few thumb-taps away on a constant Facebook Messenger group chat.
“Even with people that I or others have had trouble with in the past, [they all] are so accepting and kind,” said Bella, 16, who is the Circle organizer. “I’ve seen lots of change in some personalities from when I last knew them and now. Crazy how much something like this alters your entire being.”
Bella brought about that change, turning her frustration with how Ashland High School dealt with her sexual assault report into activism that galvanized her classmates and forced the school district to overhaul its approach to sexual violence. And she did it with little more than help from friends and guidance from a single advocate at a local rape crisis center.
“What we have seen in this case is some very private people who felt so strongly that the system could be better — and should be better — for the people who come next that they were willing to step very far out of their comfort zone in order to bring about some change,” said Susan Moen, executive director of the Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team. “The level of support that survivors who are coming forward now at the high school, the level of support from peers, is something I have never seen before.”
Over the past few years, student activism has pushed the US government to crack down on how colleges handle sexual assault cases, prompting a sixfold increase in federal Title IX investigations of campuses. Meanwhile, the rate of K-12 schools being investigated for the same problems has grown at the same rate, from 23 in July 2014 to 141 today, yet combatting sexual violence among teens hasn’t gotten nearly as much government attention as college sexual assault has.
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