“When the St. Paul’s case came out, as horrible as it was, I definitely saw an opportunity to start conversations here at Deerfield about sexual assault,” said Sami Habel ’16 when reflecting on her own inspiration to start Deerfield Students Against Sexual Assault (DSASA). The case she referred to was a 2014 trial of a St. Paul’s School student accused of sexually assaulting another student at the school. The accused student was sentenced to a year in jail but was released early when a judge believed that he had “learned his lesson” according to the Boston Globe. This case brought the issue of sexual assault close to home for Habel.
DSASA was created last year by Habel, Ellie Koschik ’17, Saoirse Kennedy-Hill ’16, and Gavin Kennedy ’16. This group of students was eager to ignite dialogue surrounding what they believed to be an issue pertinent to Deerfield.
As current head of DSASA Koschik stated, the group’s mission is “to provide a safe space for victims so that people do not feel uncomfortable talking about these topics.”
In comparing group activities to one-on-one conversations between counselors and students, Dr. Susan Watson, a counselor and an advisor to DSASA, mentioned that the group provides a unique opportunity for “a different and more therapeutic kind of support” for sexual assault victims.
However, the conversations that DSASA aims to initiate extend beyond support for specific victims. Last year, the group hosted an inter-boarding school conference with Lawrenceville, St. Paul’s, and Northfield Mount Hermon. The conference included an open forum for student representatives to discuss topics such as visitation rules, hook-up culture, and consent. In planning the event, Koschik mentioned that it was difficult to bring other boarding schools together because “high schools do not like to address this topic.”
Habel added, “[Sexual assault] is presented as being a college issue… [but] understanding about consent starts in high school.”
When discussing other preconceived notions surrounding sexual assault, Koschik explained, “There’s this idea that only girls get raped and these stereotypes should be fixed to be more supportive of all members in the community.”
For students who believe that they have no connection to the topic of sexual assault, Dr. Watson explained how gender norms associated with the issue can lead to unhealthy relationships that impact all students: “Hypermasculinity in which ‘boys will be boys’ is damaging to boys and puts them in box that does not allow them to express other emotions.” Watson mentioned that this stereotype goes both ways: “There also exists the damaging perception of what it means to be a girl, including acting in a feminine way.”
DSASA members pointed out that these kinds of stereotypes certainly prevail through social interactions and the media. For example, “Trump’s rhetoric about women contributes to a nasty part of rape culture… it is a harmful way to mask sexually degrading language,” said Habel, whose experience in DSASA encouraged her to volunteer for the Clinton campaign.
This year, in conjunction with the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA), Feminism Club, and Amnesty International, DSASA plans to contribute to gender symposiums and screen documentaries about sexual assault as well as gender norms and expectations such as Miss Representation and Audrie & Daisy. The group will also host bi-monthly meetings and discussions for those who would like join the conversation about sexual assault.
Dr. Watson stressed, “It is in all of our best interests to create safe environments.”
Ultimately, as Habel added, “talking about issues around [sexual] assault can make people uncomfortable, but once they push [past] that discomfort, progress can be made.”