Mikayla Kruse has seen enough damage caused by teenage sexual assault to know it’s a growing problem that needs a solution.
The 17-year-old Rockford senior has two friends who suffered sexual assaults. She she said believes the solution lies in a combination of awareness, communication and trust.
“People don’t even know how to define this,” Mikayla said at a recent community forum on youth safety and violence prevention. “They don’t know what is coercion or what is consent. It’s a problem. But it’s something that can be solved.”
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Mikayla, a member of the Rockford High School Women’s Awareness and Empowerment Club, spoke as part of the annual Developing Healthy Kids series offered by the school district in conjunction with Rockford HOPE, a suicide-prevention and mental-health awareness group. The program also addressed the dangers of social media; abuse of prescription and street drugs; strategies for student safety; and the challenges facing law enforcement in combating the problems.
Other speakers included Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Chris Becker; Rockford Director of Security Scott Beckman; D.A.R.E officer Jason Bradley; and Danielle Lucksted, prevention and education program manager for Safe Haven Ministries.
The topic was chosen to help benefit students’ safety and well-being, said Kirsten Myers, the district’s executive director of special services.
“We know that youth violence causes emotional, academic, and in some cases physical scars that can limit our students’ potential independence, growth, and overall success,” Myers said. Programs such as these, she added, “can lower the risk for this and other specific youth-related problems, such as alcohol and substance abuse, mental illness, and academic failure.”
Some ‘Don’t Want to Talk About It”
Mikayla said an understanding of sexual assault is crucial among teenagers, but that her friends’ experience is all too common. Often teens’ talking about assault falls on deaf ears, leading some not to talk at all.
“They were talking about sexual abuse and no one else was,” she said of her friends. “Sometimes kids don’t know where to turn. It’s like if they tell their dad, he’ll (react badly). But some parents also don’t want to talk about it.”
She’s convinced that awareness begins with a recognition that the problem is more prevalent than many adults believe; that communication between parents and their children is crucial; and that instilling trust in victims to come forward with their stories will lead to solutions.
Lucksted, of Safe Haven Ministries, said sexual abuse can put youngsters in danger of substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and future domestic violence as adults. She said statistics show 67 percent of teenagers don’t talk about sexual abuse with their parents.
By the time many children enter the fifth grade, they’re already aware of violence but don’t grasp the realities, she said.
“You talk about all the things in the media that they’re exposed to and there is unparalleled violence,” Lucksted said. “Kids become desensitized to it; it doesn’t seem like a big deal to them because it’s all over.”
Dark Places on the Internet
Beckman, the Rockford security director, said anonymity and students’ thorough knowledge of social-media apps contribute to bullying and threats. In extreme cases, it has caused suicide, he said.
“It’s a broad spectrum, from cell phones and computers to texting,” Beckman said. “(Technology) has become a way of life, but people have to be careful. The internet is a great thing, but there’s also a dark place. People with ill intentions are looking to do bad things.”
Young people need a more complete understanding of how technology can be used, he added: “They might understand what’s out there, but there’s a ‘won’t-happen-to-me’ mindset. … The teenage mind is impulsive and doesn’t always think of the consequences. That’s why there continues to be victims.”
Rockford junior Jackson Danner, a member of the school’s Peer Listeners group, said afterward it’s a problem that teens have access to so much technology. While they may think they grasp the potential consequences of social media, he said, students don’t always recognize the dangers.
“Kids understand there is so much available and they try to make sense of it and how to use it,” Jackson said. “So I think kids will look to their favorite celebrity or their best friend in how to use it.”
Becker, of the prosecutor’s office, said the solution for problems from sexual assault to cyber-bullying begins in one place.
“Education is a huge thing,” Becker said. “Education is peer-to-peer and people sharing. Police can’t be everywhere.”