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Every single day in a hallway, bodies are being…

       talked about

picked up

cussed at

checked out

grabbed at

stared down

But he just tripped, right???

Every single day, at school someone says…

“that’s gay”

“man up”

“you’re a pussy”

“you dress like a hoe”

“is that a girl or a guy?”

“what even are you???”

But it was just a joke, right???”

(Excerpt from “Every Single Day”, written by students at Garfield High School, Seattle). 

“It was amazing and powerful,” says Rebecca Milliman, recalling a recent event where a group of Garfield High School student athletes performed this spoken-word poem. “They wanted to educate people about how sexual assault and harassment affects teens.”

A social worker by training (her MSW is from UW), Milliman is the prevention and education coordinator at the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress, and the leader of a pioneering sexual assault prevention program at Garfield.

Research says more than 26.6 percent of girls and 5.1 percent of boys in the U.S. experience some sort of sexual assault by the time they’re 18. That means rape, attempted rape or molestation (including unwanted touching). Rates for sexual harassment in this same group are even higher.

Milliman’s goal is to prevent all this from happening in the first place. “This is a deep-rooted public health issue, connected to even bigger societal issues like oppression and sexism. It requires working in-depth with a community to make real change.”

“The idea is to focus our efforts on one place to see if we can really shift opinions, social norms, behaviors,” she explains. She says Garfield seemed ready for the work. The principal was committed, and students already were discussing social justice, oppression and violence. They were ready to dig deeper and explore the root causes.

Milliman teaches students in sexual health education classes, provides staff training and meets with administrators, teachers and staff to talk about policy and how they’re responding to issues.

But her main audience is Garfield’s sports teams. Athletes make up about 50 percent of the student body, and because they’re respected and followed by fellow classmates, they’re in a position to be mentors and influencers in their school and community.

To reach these kids, Milliman adopted a widely-used curriculum called Coaching Boys Into Men, from the organization Futures Without Violence. Using the curriculum, which has proven effective in preventing sexual assault perpetration, Milliman trains the school’s coaches, who, in turn, train boys on their teams.

So what about the girls? Milliman couldn’t find a girls curriculum that fit Garfield and its community. Traditional programs focus on girls as victims: defending yourself; traveling with buddies; how to stay safe. Milliman needed something that combined sexual assault prevention with empowering girls as leaders, so she created her own.

She started with the girls basketball and wrestling teams, and let them name the program themselves. They dubbed it “SLAY” (think, Beyonce’s “I Slay”), or Student Leaders & Athletic Youth. “The girls were very instrumental in giving input about the program and helping refine it.” says Milliman. SLAY soon spread to girls softball and track.

And it started to make a difference.

One athlete said she felt like a better person. Another said she and her teammates were more conscientious about how they treated each other. And a male coach Milliman had trained apologized to his entire team after telling a player he was “acting like a girl.” “Many terms in sports culture are demeaning to women and the LGBTQ community and he realized how problematic that statement was,” says Milliman.

A group of Garfield High School athletes participates in a discussion.

group of girl athletes from Garfield High School

News travels fast. Milliman started getting calls from around the country: we heard about your new girls curriculum, can you share it?

“I wasn’t really looking to start a national program, but this seemed to fill an unmet need,” she says.

There was just one problem. “SLAY” wasn’t translating well in other communities. Milliman had to change the name, but, she says, “I didn’t want it to be another example of adults not getting it and telling young people their thoughts weren’t good enough.” The girls wanted to use SLAY at Garfield, but told Milliman she could change the name elsewhere if it meant the program could reach more students.

After developing a website and promotional video, Milliman launched Athletes as Leaders nationally in June 2017. Currently, there are pilot programs in Washington, North Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, Texas, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Milliman hopes to add New York soon. Between Garfield and the pilot programs, 29 teams participate.

Milliman is particularly excited about a partnership with renowned University of Pittsburgh researcher Dr. Liz Miller. Miller, who studied the success of Coaching Boys Into Men, is helping design the Athletes as Leaders national pilot program evaluation. If it shows promising results, Milliman believes Athletes as Leaders will be better positioned to grow and receive support. “We’ll have data on our side,” she says.

For now, the local and national programs will continue to be managed at Harborview, but they will need funding. Milliman is working with UW Medicine Advancement to look for financial support and community partnerships that could help spread Athletes as Leaders to other schools and communities.

At Garfield, Milliman believes the students are ready for more – to explore issues further and make the program work even better. “With young people, you can’t be repetitive or boring, so we need to take the next step.”

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