What is “Rape Culture?”

Trigger warning: This post discusses the Steubenville rape case and also offers graphic images of advertising that perpetuates rape culture.

We are pleased with the guilty verdict in the Steubenville case in which two high school football players were found to be delinquent for raping an intoxicated 16 year old, known only as Jane Doe, at a series of parties on the night of August 11th to 12th, 2012.  What made this case that much more traumatizing for the survivor is that 1.) video, text messaging, and posts on social media were circulated of the assault and humiliation that she endured and 2.) as if that wasn’t enough, the outrage that many in the local community directed at her for “tarnishing” the reputation of the boys who were seen as local football heroes.

An example from one of the team’s 19 coaches: “The rape was just an excuse, I think,” said the 27-year-old Hubbard, who is No. 2 on the Big Red’s career rushing list. “What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” said Hubbard, who is one of the team’s 19 coaches. “She had to make up something. Now people are trying to blow up our football program because of it.”

Rape culture is one of the phrases you may have heard used in relation to this case. If you are a survivor of sexualized violence, you will likely already know what this term means. You will identify with it when remembering the shaming stares and words people used when you disclosed your assault or abuse. In the Steubenville case, there were repeated questions targeting the survivor that asked not what were these boys thinking but what was she doing there…why did she let herself get drunk and thereby get raped? How is she responsible for ruining their lives? So many threats were made against the survivor that her and her family have required ongoing police protection.

If you are a survivor of sexualized violence, you will understand this term if you were accused of lying, of making it up, of exaggerating your experience. If you are a survivor, you will understand this term when you see ads like this:

Imageand this…Image

oh, and this one too…


If you are a survivor, you will understand this term if you saw the response of the public to other survivors like Zerlina Maxwell, who went on Fox News and confronted victim-blaming by offering suggestions for how men and boys can stop rape. What she had to say, that survivors are not to blame and that the overwhelming majority of those who perpetuate violence against women (i.e., men and boys) should be held accountable for helping to stop rape was apparently so “shocking” to many for days afterward death threats and rape threats were lodged against her publicly and privately.

All of these are examples of rape culture, which can be defined as the pervasive images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate rape and other forms of sexualized violence in the world. The website, FORCE: Upsetting the Culture of Rape, goes on to state: “Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as ‘just the way things are’. This is what it means when people say that sexism and violence against women are ‘naturalized.’ It means that people in our current society believe these attitudes and actions always have been, and always will be.”

Rape culture is what supports the sense of entitlement that the boys in the Steubenville case had that allowed them to brutally violate the young Jane Doe. It is the disbelief of the football coach in the high school who was so concerned about his team winning and what would happen to his “star players” that he is alleged to have tried to cover up the allegations made by the survivor. It is even in the reading of the verdict when the judge seemed to focus more on the role of alcohol and social media than the need to teach our youth about consent and rape. It is the feeling that survivors get over and over again when society tells them their experience is not valid.

All that said, today is a good day for those that stand against rape culture. Thanks to the courage of Jane Doe, the young survivor in this case whose life has been forever changed, and for the willingness of groups like Anonymous, feminist organizations, rape crisis centers, and a global community of survivors and their supporters, rape culture was dealt a blow today. A message was sent to the world that sex without consent is not sex, it is rape.

We hope you will join us in continuing to confront rape culture. That those of us who are not survivors will see images like those above and name them as offensive and degrading symbols of rape culture. If you are a teacher or a parent, talk with your students about this case, about consent (including the role of alcohol in being unable to give consent), about what constitutes healthy relationships and healthy behavior, about accountability for our behavior. If you are not comfortable having these conversations, organizations like ours exist to help you.  Name rape culture when you see it. Examine your own beliefs, words, and actions that might support victim-blaming. Believe survivors. When we stand in community with survivors and hold offenders accountable, whether individual perpetrators, communities that protect those perpetrators or the companies that perpetuate and normalize violence against women, we will change rape culture once and for all. Rape and rape culture are not inevitable. Justice is.


“Perhaps Christmas Means A Little Bit More…”

One of the responses among the public in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy was to focus on random acts of kindness. Anne Curry, an anchor at NBC News, even got the idea trending on Twitter. #26Acts became a way for people to show they cared (one act of kindness in honor of each child and school staff member lost) for the Newton community. As social justice educators, it warmed us to see the country take acts of caring to heart and to demonstrate to children everywhere that our nation’s caring spirit is resilient even in times of grief.

But there are some teachers who have been focusing on this type of character education for quite some time. Alicia Robbins, a fourth grade teacher at Gowanda Elementary School, has been teaching a lesson plan on altruism to students for over a decade during the Christmas season, using Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch” as a basis.  The activity unfolds over a 2-3 week period. Here’s how “Miss Alicia” explains the lesson:

Each year, I turn my classroom into Who-ville in an attempt to emphasize the character education trait of caring for others. I read my class the Dr. Seuss’ book, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. We discuss the character education trait of caring, and how kindness can spread. We also discuss what kind acts “look like” for kids. Then I introduce the Grinch bulletin board, upon which I have the Grinch himself, along with three hearts: one inside the other, getting progressively larger. The students look for acts of caring and kindness in their fellow students as well as family and community members, and then record these bits of “Who-ville Spirit” on construction paper hearts. I pin these up on the board. The goal is to make the Grinch’s heart “grow” three sizes, inspired by our altruism.


The acts of kindness range from “Saw Suzie help Johnny pick up his crayons when they spilled out all over the floor” to “Donated 3 cans of food to the food pantry” to  “Brought cookies to an elderly neighbor.” The kids are proud when the Grinch’s heart starts growing.

Thank you Alicia for helping your students grow their hearts. It turns out Alicia isn’t the only teacher in the area doing this lesson. She told us she was surprised to open the local paper this weekend and find a similar bulletin board done by a teacher at the local Catholic school. Go Gowanda!

Are you doing something at school or home to encourage acts of kindness, caring, or social justice? We’d love to hear about it. Email us at info@preventioneducators.com or mention it on Twitter using our handle, @PrevEducators.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and safe New Year!

13 Ways to Talk About Tough Topics with Children

The staff of Prevention Educators joins the nation in mourning the senseless deaths of 20 children and 6 school staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School and like you, we are asking “Why?” We know there are no easy answers and we also know how hard it has been to talk with children about this tragedy. Youth today are sometimes confronted with a dark picture of humanity, and because information can be delivered to them instantly, they often do not hear about incidents like Sandy Hook from the caring adults in their lives first. But youth are also highly resilient and they recover and adapt in ways that serve as an example to us adults.

We’ve been talking since Friday with teachers and parents about how much information to give youth about the school shooting. Unfortunately over the years, we’ve had enough similar talks to create an entire workshop for educators and parents on the topic of talking tough topics with children. In this training, we explore the issues parents and educators struggle to find words to express to kids in today’s world: school violence, child abuse, rape and sexual assault, war…(remember when the “talk” that was the toughest was about sex?).

We hope you will find these tips useful in continuing to talk with kids in the coming days about this difficult subject.

1. Don’t assume kids don’t know.

Children are very aware of the environment around them and are often more knowledgeable than adults think they are. If they don’t hear about a problem or issue from adults, they will hear it from one another, from the Internet or other media. Not talking about tough subjects doesn’t protect children from them. If you remain silent, you communicate to children that a subject is taboo and that they can’t come to you with their questions or problems.

2. Be available and “askable.”

Let youth know that your classroom or home is an open environment and that it is okay to talk about unpleasant topics or subjects. Your willingness to be available and respond to children’s questions lets them know that you are trustworthy of their feelings and needs.


3. Initiate conversations.

Not all children are comfortable coming to adults with their questions and concerns, even though we may want them to. That’s why it’s perfectly okay – and even necessary sometimes – to initiate the discussions ourselves. It’s likely that school administrators have already identified how they would like staff to address the shootings at Sandy Hook today. Parents, if you’ve been hesitant to talk with your child, it may be helpful to check in with the child to see what, if anything, he or she already knows about what happened.

4. Set ground rules.

Teachers, if you’re going to have discussions on difficult subject with an entire class, be sure to set some ground rules first. Ask students to listen respectfully to each other, without interruption. Remind them it’s important to value the views of others, even if they don’t agree with them. Tell them its okay to criticize ideas, but not people. Help them to avoid blame and speculation, and be sure to confront inflammatory language (pointing out why the language is inflammatory and offering suggestions on how else a student can express his or herself.) Elementary school teachers may be providing limited information to youth about the Sandy Hook school violence but high school teachers may need to address the issue in classes if students are already talking about it. As our nation debates gun control and mental health policy, it may be especially necessary to remind our students and ourselves to be respectful and considerate of others’ opinions.

5. Set limits.

Although it’s important to address tough topics in class or at home, it’s also important to set boundaries and limits on these conversations. You don’t want these conversations to take you too far away from your lesson plans or create lots of anxiety in your children at home, but you don’t want to ignore kids’ needs either. Therefore, it can be helpful to set aside protected time to talk about problems or current events. For example, you can tell students that you are going to take the next 20 minutes to talk about their concerns related to news about the school shooting, and then, if anyone still needs to talk later, they can seek you or their guidance counselor out after school.  However, in cases of a crisis this severe, it’s also important to give more time than normal to allow for sharing for feelings and processing of the event.

6. Actively listen.

It can be difficult for adults to really, truly listen to young people. We tend to want to interrupt, to hurry up and finish their sentences. Or to interject our own beliefs or tell them what they should do about the situation.  Listening is one of the most important skills you can bring to these discussions. As you listen, show that you are interested and attentive.  Ask children to be more concrete by using a variety of questions, such as “I can tell that you feel strongly about this, tell me more what you think about…” or “How long have you been feeling this way…?”  Good listening also involves paying careful attention to what young people may not be saying. Be aware of their nonverbal messages – facial expressions, fidgeting, gestures, tone of voice, etc., which indicate that strong emotions may be present. For example, my seven-year-old didn’t want to talk much about the school violence at Sandy Hook after we explained to her what had happened, but she has been carrying around her class picture at bedtime tonight, naming all the students in it as if to reassure herself of their presence and safety.

girl7. Get the perceptions.

When you listen to children, it’s important to hear their opinions and perspectives, before you interject.  In order to understand how children experience an event or issue, you must be open to hear all they have to say. Myths and misconceptions often go hand-in-hand with talk of tough subjects, and it’s important to clear them up, but first you must know what they are.

8. Get the facts.

Before you initiate discussions about a tough topic, be sure that you have taken the time to educate yourself on the subject. You want to be sure that you are not contributing to your youths’ misconceptions or confusion. If you are like me, you may be limiting yourself to media coverage about Sandy Hook because it is so difficult to hear. If you don’t know the answer or If you don’t feel particularly comfortable dealing with a certain situation (such as school violence, bullying, or suicide), consider bringing in a guest speaker who has expertise in the area (making sure that the conversations with youth are age-appropriate).  But be prepared for the questions that will follow once a speaker leaves your school.

9. Set youth straight with accurate, age-appropriate information.

Honesty is essential, but it must be accurate and age-appropriate. Trying to talk to a seven-year-old about a school shooting, using words like “tragedy” and “massacre” is going to undermine the child’s understanding and may cause additional fear. Keep your language simple, use short words, and straightforward explanations.

10. Acknowledge fears.

When dealing with difficult issues (and even more so when coping with the severity of the violence this week), children may experience either general anxiety or specific fears.  Some children may be afraid that the same thing will happen to them or someone they love. It may be especially difficult when random violence like this occurs for even adults to feel safe, but  we must…. (see #11)

11. Reassure youth of their safety.

After acknowledging fears, let children know that their families and communities love them and will protect them from everything they can, however, no one can keep all bad things from happening to children. Tell your students and children they’re welcome to talk to you whenever they need to. If a child’s fears are becoming overwhelming and interfering with his/her ability to function in school or at home, referrals to professional counseling may be necessary.

12. Look for feelings beyond fear.

Don’t stop at reassuring youth of their safety. Talking about tough topics can cause children to experience a myriad of other feelings or emotions besides fear.  Support the development of this emotional expression with caring and empathy. Remember that these discussions will likely need to occur more than once and in the coming days and weeks, reassurance of safety will need to be reiterated again and again to children.

13. Like Mister Rogers said, “Look for the Helpers.”

One way to reassure children that there is good in the world, especially when confronted with such atrocious acts of violence, is to “look for the helpers.” Help youth identify who in your school or community are helpers: police, teachers, fire fighters, counselors. FEMA_-_37563_-_FEMA_representatives_talking_with_children_at_a_Law_Enforcement_celebration_in_Texas

If there are youth helpers in your school or neighborhood, especially point them out. Children need to know what is or could be done to protect them before violence or trauma, during, and after. It can be especially empowering to know that even the youngest members of our society want to help and provide comfort. When we talked about the school shooting with our daughter, we identified who the helpers were, we talked generally about the bravery of the teachers and how many children’s lives were saved, and we talked about who she could go to if she needed to talk to anyone about her feelings.

Please contact us if you need help in answering youth’s questions or if you would like training for your community group or school on working with youth after a trauma or teaching tough topics. We’ll be back with more tips later this week including how to further empower children by taking action in your community. Thank you all for the work you do to protect and care for our children.

Teaching Peace to Preschoolers

This week, I had the opportunity to be “Parent of the Day” at my daughter’s preschool, Eden Cooperative Nursery School, in Eden, New York. We chose this school for her specifically because it was community-based, cooperative (meaning it is co-owned by the families and teachers) and utilized the Montessori method of education. One of the things that first drew my interest several years ago to the Montessori approach to early childhood education was the Peace Table. The Peace Table is a place in the classroom for children to resolve conflicts between themselves. (I can hear you’re thinking : preschoolers resolving conflict by themselves? REALLY?). Really.

On the wall next to the Peace Table

The Montessori approach is to education focuses on teaching children through the practical environment. And while it stresses independence, it also builds interdependence through modeling relationship skills to children. So when children have an escalating conflict in the Montessori classroom, they are invited to the Peace Table where they talk through their problems.

Peace Table

Peace Table at Eden Co-Op

In most classrooms, the  “Peace Talk” begins by ringing a bell, placing a hand on the heart or holding the Peace Rose to signal whose turn it is to talk, and then using “I” statements to describe the feelings they experienced due to each other’s behavior, apologizing and working out the problem. Teachers may help children through this process early on in the year but as time goes on in the classroom, the children will usually start to go to the table themselves when needed.

The Peace Table and Talk are part of an overall approach to peace education that is included in the Montessori method. Watch the great video clip below that describes how children benefit from early education in peace and conflict resolution.

Educating for Peace Video

Continue reading

Creating Effective Parent/Teacher Partnerships

Every school we’ve trained with has discussed the need to have effective partnerships with parents and other caregivers, yet they sometimes fall short on making those partnerships successful.   The National Education Association just conducted its annual parent/teacher survey which presented a broad picture of these relationships across the country.  Turns out parents think most teachers are pretty great, giving them an overall “A” grade for their work together. Teachers grading parents came in a little lower at a “B.”  What are the greatest challenges to effective partnerships and what are their solutions? Check out the handy chart we made from the NEA’s Back 2 School  Twitter Chat on the topic that includes links to best practices implemented by schools across the country.




Parental misunderstanding of child’s challenges  Infinite Campus Parent Portal
Parents feel shut out and not given opportunity to offer input Community conversations
Teachers feel parents should do more at home to reinforce learning Parent-teacher teams
Teachers feel parents don’t take their opinions seriously Parent Teacher Home Visit Project
Parents feel teachers don’t hold enough meetings with them Go beyond formal meetings


Two more useful resources for building family-school-community partnerships can be found here and here.

And don’t forget, Prevention Educators can help your school or parent organization facilitate these important conversations.

Do these challenges seem familiar? Are the solutions realistic in your school or community? We’d love your comments, ideas, and concerns to keep the conversation going as we return to classes. Best wishes for a great school year!


Founding Partner, PE

Celebrating Success With Our First Community Hero: Diane Vigrass – Part II

Hello again friends. We’re back with our second of three posts with the inspiring Diane Vigrass, our first Western New York Community Hero. In the last post, Diane, who is currently a Special Education Improvement Specialist at Niagara-Orleans BOCES, shared some wisdom about working with parents inside the special education system. In this post, we’re going to focus on her work with educators, particularly related to the difficulty in consistently applying critical thinking in our work and challenging our personal biases.

Jeanette: We were talking before about working with parents within the special education system. What about teachers?

Diane: Teachers must make sure those IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are showing benefit so that one year does not look like the next year. For example, I worked with a district that had a high school student still receiving special transportation on the IEP that was originated in the third grade. They just kept putting it in and putting it in. There was no indication that is was needed, so I asked, “Why does he still need this in the 9th grade?” Luckily, I got the right teacher at the right time. She was as flabbergasted as I was. She went all the way back to Transportation and had them look it up. It turns out this student had problems on the bus in that year, and since he was in special education, they got him his own transportation. And then no one ever reevaluated the need in the next six years!

Our goal in the ninth grade for this student was for more peer interaction, which he wasn’t going to get on the mini-bus. So there needs to be movement to get a child as close to a situation where there is general education or with peers as much as possible. I think it’s easy for teachers and administrators to say in relation to IEPs, “He had it last year, we’ll give it to him again this year.”

Jeanette: We see a lot of the same thing when we come into a school as consultants. Lots of educators “get” the need for critical thinking at an individual, cognitive level, but it seems to break down when the system tries to implement it. It is easier to maintain that homeostasis…. “This is how we do it in our school or our district” instead of pausing to consider,“What does this particular child in this particular family in this particular school need?”

Diane: And that’s why we have to have a plan. To get a child out of the box we’ve put him or her in.

Jeanette: Let’s talk about more of those boxes we put kids in, whether its related to their racial identities, identities around disabilities or differences, or gender. How do we counter that?

Diane: I think it’s the modeling.Teachers have to model in school. Which is difficult because you have to go past your beliefs.You must really know yourself and where your glitches are,and then work through that. It’s not actually a bias in race that I see most often, it’s a bias in class, in background…poverty really. I hear, “This student can’t do this because…,” or “This student can’t come to school because…” That’s when I start the line of questioning to get to the root of what the teacher perceives vs. what the reality is.In the Catholic school system, I used “What Would Jesus Do,” falling back on our faith. In the public system, I rely on a line of questioning that I have gotten better at implementing. Had I had that kind of background, that kind of comfort, back early in my career, I think I could have done more with providing effective professional development around bullying and diversity.

Jeanette: So many people that come into social justice work get burned out after the first few years. But you’ve made compassion your work for 30 years now. What keeps you going?

Diane: Whenever you get the tiniest success, you celebrate it. We’ve been working on writing IEPs for three years in the district and as soon as there was one teacher who began writing meaningful IEPs, I toasted her  because you’ve got to celebrate each small step. And I think that’s true for students with disabilities too. When you see somebody has finally reached a goal, or some other kind of success, you celebrate it. You mention it them so they can celebrate it too.

I think it’s the only way you go forward….from one success to the next success. You have to expect the best. You can’t just wait for it to happen. You have to have an attitude that there will be success. You look for it and you celebrate it.

Celebrating Success with our First Community Hero: Diane Vigrass – Part I

The Wonderful Diane

We’re pleased to profile Prevention Educators’ first Community Hero, Diane Vigrass. Diane is an educator with over 30 years of experience who has worked in several high-profile positions in our community. We had the pleasure of working with her originally when she was the Superintendent for the Diocese of Buffalo Catholic school system. We continued our partnership when she was the Associate Director at the Model Transitions Program at the Center for Rehabilitation Synergy at the University at Buffalo. Currently, she is the Special Education School Improvement Specialist for Niagara-Olean BOCES. Wherever and for whomever she has worked with in our community, Diane has kept social justice at the forefront of her work. Whether pressing her principals to proactively address bias-based bullying in the Catholic schools, providing training on culturally competent services for individuals with disabilities, or coaching teachers to make their IEPs more child-centered, Diane has taken a leadership role in the organizations she’s worked with.  She completed her BS in Education from Medaille College and her MS in Learning and Behavioral Disorders from Buffalo State College.

Jeanette sat down with Diane recently to discuss her work, its relation to social justice, how she motivates those she works with as a supervisor, trainer, or coach. They also discussed the importance of bridging the gap between families and educators.  In this three-part series, we’ll highlight some of the main points in that conversation related to working with parents, teachers and across systems. This first post will focus on working with parents. We think you’ll agree that Diane is a true Community Hero!

Jeanette: What has it been for you to keep a social justice focus at the front of your work?

Diane: Because I work with students with disabilities, it’s been a natural fit. I’m on a campaign to make sure that people understand that special education is not a lifelong sentence. It doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence. And that’s what the crux of a lot of my work is in the school districts now. We need to wean the child away from special ed wherever possible by teaching strategies to compensate for the disability, making experts and supports available as needed and then getting out of the way so that youth can apply those strategies, whether that’s in post-secondary education or in their job.

Jeanette: Well, what would you want to say more specifically about that?

Diane: Let’s start with parents…There’s a lot that happens at the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings (for children with disabilities). There is so much that can make the parent nervous because of how it’s presented, the format, all the people, the body language of those “experts” at the meeting. But parents need to be very active in their child’s education, especially if they are parenting a student with disabilities.

Jeanette: I think a lot of parents don’t understand what their role is at an IEP meeting and what the rights of the family and child are, even though they get the packet and the letters that describe the procedures. Being a parent of a child with special needs, I’ve heard other parents say, “I didn’t know I could ask for, e.g., speech.” Or “I know they have this parent support person there at the IEP but I didn’t know who she was because they had 10 other people there and I was overwhelmed.”

Diane: I wish I could tell parents to be in control. To be comfortable being active in their child’s life…The parents are the first teacher, the parents are the people that know them (the students) inside out and upside down. So when a child is having a problem, the parent’s input should be considered very valuable by the educators.  On the other hand, the educators have the training about learning and instruction.  When parents and educators listen to each other, an effective plan will develop through mutual understanding  about what’s best for that child.

Jeanette: When we go out to train a school community, we’ll often hear the parents talk about their issues with the teachers and the teachers talk about their issues with the parents.  It’s often done in an “us vs. them” mentality.  How do you think we keep the children’s needs front and center?

Diane: First, I think it’s about creating those teachable moments. It doesn’t start in high school. It’s way back in the elementary years or even before, at ages 3-4. It’s important to teach children how to ask for information they need, especially in a group. And especially for the child with a disability. Self-advocacy is so important in post-secondary life. We (parents and teachers together) have to make sure students with disabilities are ready for the world: academically and socially.  Teachers can’t do it alone. We’ve only got 6 hours. Parents can’t do it alone.  So we’ve got to create a bond. It’s very disappointing that our profession makes parents feel like they are not an important part of a child’s life in education. Schools are a part of communities, and educators can’t exclude the parents in their efforts to help children grow to be members of the community.

Jeanette: How can we be better educators as a system in a community then?

Diane (without missing a beat!): Service learning projects. I really believe in service learning projects. As an educator, if you can bring the family together and do a service learning project from start to finish, I think we can make head way in creating a unit of family and school. And also do some very important work in our community. Maybe grow that volunteerism effort and the ability to understand people who are disadvantaged, or disabled, or in the minority. I keep thinking of Habitat for Humanity and all the varied educational experiences a child could accumulate and apply to his or her own life…now and in the future.

Jeanette: When you started working with children in special education, did your own schooling prepare in relation to “doing” social justice work?

Diane: Absolutely not.  I think whatever you learn about social justice it’s nurtured through your parents and your upbringing. An outside individual  can open the eyes of children and adults to social justice. And you can keep showing them or telling them about good practices, but they may actually live a different story.  Parents can give children the right foundation, the right messages to support their growth.

Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll talk with Diane about her work with teachers and administrators, including how to push past your comfort zone and into change and the importance of celebrating every success.