Cape Elizabeth students coalesce around preventing sexual violence

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Students at Cape Elizabeth High School understand the importance of creating awareness around sexual assault.

A group of six students organized and hosted Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone, or SAAFE, on May 23 for high school juniors and seniors. The day-long event was held at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

The event came about after senior Caroline Lengyel realized her peers needed information about what sexual assault is and how it can be prevented.

“I just noticed in my friend group and in the school the lack of knowledge around consent and sexual assault,” Lengyel said.

The event was planned  with the help of five other students – Lily Mackenzie, Maggie Gleason, Natalie Gale, Stephen Bennett and Emily Healy – and support from staff and administration. The day was made possible through a $5,600 grant from the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation, and the students hope to make it a bi-annual event.

Throughout the day there were various workshops and presentations from local organizations such as Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program, and Maine Boys to Men, as well as from individual speakers. There was also a performance by Speak About It, which focuses on educating youth about consent.

The student organizers said it’s important for students to be aware of sexual assault because it’s something that occurs within the Cape Elizabeth community.

“For me, I’ve had a lot of friends who’ve been touched by these issues,” Gale said. “They’re occurring at our school and they’ll be even more present going into college.”

The goal of the event was to give students the tools and knowledge to prevent sexual assault from occurring.

“Knowing it’s an issue and knowing what to do about it should go together,” Mackenzie said.

In addition to teaching students how to protect themselves from becoming a victim and making sure they aren’t perpetrators, a large part of SAAFE was teaching students how to help each other.

“We’re trying to really emphasize being an active bystander,” Gleason said. “The ability to intervene in a social situation really transcends age.”

The students said most of the feedback they got from their peers about the event was positive, but some were skeptical. The organizers said some students didn’t think sexual assault was something they needed to be concerned about.

“We definitely knew sexual assault, on college campuses especially, is a big problem and in our school community it’s not talked about,” Gleason said. “People think it’s kind of far off in the distance, but it’s does happen and there’s something we can do about it.”

The event continued with a presentation for parents that night. A presenter spoke about sexual assault on college campuses and there was a version of the Speak About It performance just for parents.

The student organizers said it was important that the conservation didn’t stop with students.

“It’s really important because we can’t get this much information and just have it,” Mackenzie said. “We need someone to talk about it with. Having the whole community involved really secures the day.”

Gleason said it is important “to educate parents as well as students” because it teaches parents how to discuss sexual assault prevention with their children, and Gale agreed.

“Having parents who can communicate clearly and candidly with their children will only promote and reinforce that,” Gale said.

While some people in Cape Elizabeth may never experience or hear of an incident of sexual assault in the community, the SAAFE organizers said they hope everyone came away from the event with a new perspective.

“I hope everyone has a new-found respect and understanding of each other and an understanding of what consent is and how to receive it,” Lengyel said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Cape Elizabeth High School students Caroline Lengyel, left, Natalie Gale, Maggie Gleason, Stephen Bennett, Lily Mackenzie and Emily Healy organized a sexual assault awareness day for their peers on May 23.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.