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Working with Schools and Voices from the Field: Steph Coffey and Amy Swensen

Often when at meetings or conferences, I hear people asking questions around how to best work with schools. The struggle is real folks! Schools have a lot on their plates already and often when the word sex enters the conversations (even if you don’t use that exact word) schools get a little squirmy. Perhaps they fear what some parents may say or are themselves unsure about how to talk with children and youth about sex, sexual health, and healthy relationships. Below you will find one member program’s real life lessons learned. Here are also a few ideas that may help you move along.

1.) Think strategically about who in the community and in the school can help you achieve your goals-whether that is coming in with an evidence based curriculum like Safe Dates or trying to launch Green Dot in your high school. Who knows who matters, for better or for worse. Find people who are interested in what you are doing and have a fair amount of influence or know those who do. With their influence they can help to attract others who have more sway to your efforts. Having people in places of power helps a lot!

2.) Don’t count anyone out on initial biases; sometimes our best partners show up in unexpected ways. Someone who is not one of your usual suspects may be a huge supporter of healthy relationships. When I was doing community based prevention work I found key stakeholders in law enforcement, bar managers, child protection, and a Refugee Consortium. Keep an open mind and approach people you may normally rule out. People do not have to identify as feminist or even believe rape culture is real to help you achieve your goal.

3.) Call people in, not out. When collaborating with people who may not come from the same framework as you it is likely they will say things that make you cringe occasionally. This does not mean they support violence or want anyone to be hurt necessarily. We all grow up in a society that sends many messages about sex, relationships, and gender roles. Take a deep breath and be gracious in those instances. Remember, we all have many things to learn and there was a time where we ourselves did not know what we do today.

4.) Ask people to commit to action steps when they are in support of you. If meeting with a teacher who may support your education efforts in the school, ask them to do something that will help move this forward. Whether it is to send an email to their administration or attend a meeting. People often want to help, we just need to ask.

5.) Use evidence based or informed materials whenever possible, but be flexible enough to get in the door. This can be a difficult line to tow; and yet is an important strategy. Curriculum can be a barrier for schools who have a lengthy approval process. Perhaps schools can’t commit to ten sessions, but are willing to allow three sessions (I’m dreaming big here people). Do what you can and think of ways to move forward as you go.

I now leave you to the words of wisdom of others doing the work.

Voices from the Field

Steph Coffey and Amy Swensen

North Shore Horizons, Two Harbors

“When we started with the high schools, we were starting at square one with not a lot of experience.  One positive was that we had school counselors who were supporters. Everything was moving right along and then three out of the five contacts we had moved on to new positions. Suddenly we had new people in the driver’s seat that we asking “Why are we doing this with students?”. Needless to say, it was an opportunity for learning!

Here’s some lessons we learned:

  • 1.)  Define the need for education and skill building around healthy relationships to all the stakeholders and give them an opportunity to offer their perspectives.
  • 2.)  If you do not have the proven experience in the classroom, partner with an agency who does. The partnership not only adds credibility to the program, but can also help mentor the staff needing more experience.
  • 3.)  Research based curricula and a detailed presentation plan approved by all major stakeholders is a major advantage. For us, the stakeholders were counselors, principals, and teachers. They wanted the opportunity to provide input and often they know the students best.
  • 4.)  Don’t let off putting comments get in your way of involving stakeholders. Even though you may get comments that are victim-blaming or people don’t 100% agree with you, keep in mind they are there because they really care about the students.  There’s some common ground and that’s where it is the best place to start. You can move forward in a positive direction from there.
  • 5.)  Provide updates to school board members about the work you are doing. This can create an allythat can advocate on your behalf if you run into a speed bump.
  • 6.)  Don’t avoid stakeholders you may feel present a barrier, engage them in a conversation. Each community is unique and has certain influential groups. One of our stakeholders with a lot of influence in the schools was a religious community.  In the past they had pulled students from any healthy relationship programs at the school; which accounted for about 1/3 of the entire student population. To work through this our educator and the school principal met with them to talk about the details of the program. We were able make some adjustments the community felt was needed to involve their students without compromising the program. Students are no longer pulled from classes around healthy relationships and are now getting that much needed information and skill building.
  • 7.)  Evaluations help and show you know what you are doing! And that the education is making an impact on attitudes and more importantly behaviors. We did pre and post tests to show the impact. MNCASA can help you with evaluations if you are wanting to start.
  • 8.)  We end each year with a wrap-up meeting with stakeholders.  What worked? What needs change? What is missing?  We also present the data from our surveys and include quotes from the students.”