Sexual violence awareness workshop is for high schoolers

“Unless we are educated, everybody in this room is a potential victim, a potential perpetrator and a potential bystander.”

De Toledo High School senior Roni Farkash’s opening comments about sexual violence came during a National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) event Aug. 30 that gave audience members a taste of what the nonprofit is doing to educate high school students and incoming college freshmen about the issue.

The timing couldn’t have been more relevant — it happened just a few days before former Stanford University student Brock Turner was released from jail after being convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in a trial that made national headlines.

The local presentation at NCJW’s Fairfax Boulevard headquarters was intended to give about 40 parents, teachers and school administrators insight into The Talk Project, a self-described “peer-to-peer sexual violence awareness workshop for high school students [in Los Angeles].”

“This workshop needs to be heard by every high school student in the country,” Maya Paley, director of legislative and community engagement at NCJW/LA and principal investigator of The Talk Project, said during kickoff remarks. 

Launched in February by NCJW/LA teen volunteers involved with creating the NCJW/LA Teen Advocacy Working Group, the program’s goal is to fill a gap in education about sexual violence in high schools. So far, The Talk Project has reached 1,100 students across Los Angeles in six high schools, including public, private and magnet schools: Oakwood School, deToledo High School, Milken Community Schools, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, Palisades Charter High School and Brighton Hall School.. 

The four presenters Aug. 30 included two Jewish day school students, Farkash and Romy Dolgin, also a senior at de Toledo High School. The others — founding co-chairs of the initiative — were incoming UC Davis freshman Brianna Tuomi, a graduate of Oakwood School in North Hollywood, and Lauren Foley, a USC sophomore and 2015 graduate of Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena.

During the 90-minute discussion, the students acted out scenarios to spotlight what constitutes consensual sex and showed clips of the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” which examines the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses.

The presenters also revealed a number of statistics showing that only 2 to 8 percent of reported sexual assaults turn out to be false, a disproportionate number of reported assaults occur between those who previously knew each other, and the LGBTQ community experiences sexual violence at double the rate of the heterosexual community.

The presentation at NCJW/LA, which was open to the public, was the same one the trained peer educators of The Talk Project deliver at local high schools to student-only audiences. As of Aug. 30, the program had 20 trained peer educators, all women, although it is open to men, and its leaders are hoping men eventually sign up. 

They also hope to increase funding for it so that it can spread across additional high schools in Los Angeles, according to Paley. 

The initiative, which is run under the social justice advocacy arm of NCJW/LA, is funded internally, Paley said. Outside help has come from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which provided the project with a $5,000 ChangeMaker Challenge grant at the beginning of the year.

“We feel that this should be a priority issue and project for the Jewish community to support and we hope that our community can commit to fighting sexual violence together by supporting The Talk Project,” Paley wrote in an email. 

In May, NCJW/LA released a 19-page evaluation of the program by Hannah Barth, a UCLA master’s of social work student and an intern for NCJW/LA, that found the program was having a positive impact on students’ “understanding of the societal and systemic causes of sexual violence.” It also noted room for improvement in terms of males’ understanding of consent. The report examined three high schools that had held the workshops. 

The presentation concluded with a Q-and-A session and emphasized that girls and boys can be victims of sexual violence: 1 in 4 female college students experiences sexual violence in college, while 1 in 16 males does, according to the presenters.

One mother in the audience expressed frustration over how to handle the dressing habits of teenage girls, wanting to allow her daughter to wear trendy short shorts but also feeling nervous about letting her go out dressed that way. 

“Why should I tell my kid, ‘You can’t wear what’s popular right now because you are making yourself look like a sexualized being and you might not be one yet’? So it’s very confusing as a parent as well to know what the line is,” she said. 

The presenters stood between an American flag and an Israeli flag. Artwork from the recent NCJW/LA student art exhibition, titled “Rise,” which features art that explores sexual violence and rape culture, decorated the walls.

Educating about sexual violence is a fulfillment of the Jewish obligation to perform acts of tikkun olam, or healing the world, Farkash told the Journal. 

“I think that a really big part of Judaism is getting involved in the community. We have this whole concept of tikkun olam, and I think that in this program, we’re trying to do that,” she said. “We’re trying to better society. We’re doing that with education. We’re trying to improve the lives of everybody by starting the conversation about such a taboo topic.”