On a too-hot day of school in early August, I was sitting on the floor in my ninth grade health classroom.
I took a small, folded slip of paper out of the basket being passed around the room. Girls unfolded theirs before me, giggling. I opened mine. “HERPES,” it said.
We broke up into small groups and researched whatever STD we were assigned, and came back to class to present our research. We cringed hearing about symptoms and blushed at having to stand in front of the class and say things like “discharge” out loud.
Over the course of my high school career, my school’s approach to sex ed changed and grew. What had once been a stale and outdated feeling curriculum (that included watching 80s after school specials about eating disorders) was reexamined. Towards the end of my senior year, a local gynecologist came and walked us through the steps of a typical exam.
I am one of the lucky ones — my all-girls’ high school was progressive and deeply caring, my teachers candid and the curriculum realistic and focused on helping us make smart and safe decisions. Still, something was missing.
It’s easy, I think, for adults to see high school as preparation for college in more ways than just academics. College has so long been associated with a late-night mix of alcohol and stress and hook-up culture that we overlook the fact that, for many people, it’s high school (not college) where they first find themselves confronted with the many choices of young adulthood.
In high school, it’s too easy to speak in vague hypothetical platitudes than it is to use the safe space to talk concretely about the kinds of things that matter most.
Sure, we talk about consent and assault and protecting ourselves, but we don’t often talk about them in any kind of specific or detailed way until we’re thinking in response to something bad happening. Before they go to college and hear about emergency blue lights and Title IX reporters at orientation, high schoolers should know what happens if you report an assault. Assault is not limited to college campuses and yet, too often, survivors of assault are confronted with the scary intricacies of the legal system for the first time while they are also at their most traumatized and vulnerable feeling.
If we are serious about eradicating – or at least about minimizing and controlling – the enormous and disturbingly prevalent problem of campus assault, we have no choice but to acknowledge that it begins far before students head off to college. We can teach respect and consent and self-protection, to teach the specifics of the judicial system, to teach what it means to file a police report. We can do more and do better earlier, and we must.