WILLMAR - Two students at DREAM Technical Academy in Willmar are leading classmates' participation in a state Department of Health study on preventing sexual violence.
The state will eventually enlist 25 organizations across Minnesota in looking for a plan for prevention.
The Willmar charter school is one of five groups currently holding listening sessions on the issue. DREAM is the only school and the only strictly rural organization, said Amy Kenzie, sexual violence prevention program coordinator for the state. Each organization in the study receives a $5,000 grant to cover staff time and other costs.
Sisters Ashley Haney, a junior, and Amy Haney, a senior, are leading their classmates in a series of discussions to define sexual violence and talk about preventing it.
The term sexual violence covers a wide range of actions involving unwelcome sexual contact or conduct. It can range from inappropriate sexual comments or jokes, to refusing to stop when a partner says no, to brutal sexual assaults.
"The goal is to find messaging that could prevent it," Amy said.
Student adviser Melissa Hoffman Bodin is overseeing their effort, which is Ashley's junior project. The school uses project-based learning, with student projects earning credits toward graduation.
Kenzie said she knew Bodin because Bodin had previously worked with a sexual violence program. Kenzie said she's quite interested to read the report from DREAM because of the student leadership and Bodin's involvement.
Groups of students have gone to the WorkUp co-working space for their meetings. DREAM and WorkUp are a couple blocks apart on the MinnWest Technology Campus.
A neutral setting seems to help students share, Ashley said. Bodin gives an opening talk, and the girls lead the discussion with students.
"We try to make sure people are comfortable, that nobody feels threatened," Ashley said. "People will say they had no idea this was happening in Willmar."
The meetings have drawn comments from students who don't ordinarily speak up, and "I think they are learning from each other on this," Ashley said.
The ways society normalizes sexual violence in movies, TV and social media is a frequent topic. Another is the way silence can allow the violence to continue.
The meetings have led to brave conversations and realizations from some students that they may have unknowingly crossed boundaries in the past.
"Some feelings are very strong ... stronger than I expected," Ashley said.
Amy said she tends to let Ashley take the lead, since it's her project, and she has learned a lot through the process. "The more I am open about it, the more I find out the same stuff has happened to someone else," she said.
"I think this is groundbreaking work," Bodin said. "It's only in the past five years there's been money for prevention."
Kenzie said the state is offering five grants at a time. DREAM is in the second group of five. The state will work with five organizations at a time until it reaches the total of 25.
Reports from the groups will be used to guide the department's development of prevention programs. Many of the groups are nonprofit organizations representing a variety of interests in the state, a recognition that different populations experience sexual violence in different ways.
"In some cases, even talking about it can be taboo," Kenzie said.