Sexual Violence Prevention in K-12 Schools

Host: Hello, and welcome to Prevention and Protection, the United Educators Risk Management Podcast. Today, Jamie Forbes, CEO of Learning Courage, and Melanie Bennett, Senior Risk Management Counsel at United Educators, will discuss how Learning Courage is helping K-12 schools prevent sexual abuse. A reminder to listeners that you could find other UE podcasts, as well as UE risk management resources, on our website, Our podcasts are also available on Apple Podcast and Spotify. Now here’s Melanie. 

Melanie Bennett: Jamie, welcome back to the podcast. 

Jamie Forbes: Thanks, Melanie. Great to be with you again. 

Bennett: Before we begin, we’d like to offer a trigger warning as this episode discusses sexual assault. Jamie, we’ve been working together for a few years now. Can you walk through what Learning Courage is and why you started it? 

Forbes: Sure. Learning Courage is a nonprofit membership organization, and we work with independent schools, primarily independent school leaders, to help them reduce and respond to sexual misconduct. Really, we know we’re doing the best work we can when we are actually preventing incidents from happening. We want to keep students and adults from being harmed. We also recognize that harm is inevitable. It happens just as a matter of course. So, we really focus on helping schools understand how to respond in ways that minimize harm and that maximize and support the healing process. 

Bennett: What services do you provide to schools? 

Forbes: We do everything from helping schools understand how they’re doing in regards to reducing and responding to sexual misconduct today. So we go in and do an assessment at the school. That’s typically a two-day visit where we interview as many as two dozen people at the school, and we understand everything from how the security works to policies and procedures to investigations. We really do a deep dive into the school and understand really virtually all aspects related to preventing and responding to sexual misconduct.  

From that, we write an assessment report and ultimately work with the school to create a three-year action plan.  

So that’s one of the hallmark pieces of our work with schools. It really helps us get to know the school and really meet them where they are. From that, oftentimes there’s training that we or someone else can come in and do that we recommend. And the training for us is everything from working with the board to understand the importance of being trauma-informed or leadership alignment, to working with the leadership team, to really working with students. We do a lot of work with students to help them work together and be what we call upstander and interveners.  

On the response side of things, whenever a school has an incident, we’re there to help them figure out how to respond in a way that keeps survivors or anyone who’s been harmed at the center of that response. Because one of the things that we’ve learned in our work is that focusing on the survivor and caring for the survivor is not just the best thing to do for the survivor and in their best interest, it’s actually the best thing for the institution as well. 

Bennett: I saw your excellent TEDx talk, and we’ll link it on the landing page. Can you give a brief overview of the talk? 

Forbes: Sure. So the TED Talk actually kind of follows the arc of my experience from being abused when I was a freshman at Milton Academy where I went to high school all the way through the experience of standing in a courtroom facing my abuser 30 years later. Because the TED Talk actually occurred a week before I was facing my abuser in court, it was this synchronicity that I felt like I couldn’t pass up. So the idea behind the TED Talk was to help people understand not just the impact of what happened to me during the moment and moments of abuse, but more importantly what I focused on is what happened after the fact, how that impacted my life from that moment forward, and aspects of that experience stay with me today. 

And one of the things I talked a lot about was shame and the power of shame and how it makes its way into your brain in ways that oftentimes you don’t really think about, and in fact, ways that I continue to uncover today. So, part of that objective was to normalize the experience in a way and also hopefully to give people an access point and a better understanding of what it’s like to be a survivor and how to support survivors. And I brought in aspects of my impact statement, which I was going to be reading the following week. So the fact that those two events happened within a week of each other made the TED Talk that much more impactful. 

Bennett: Has reaching this point in your story where you’ve faced your abuser in court, where you’ve read an impact statement, has that changed the way that you and Learning Courage help schools and students? 

Forbes: It has. One of the things that really inspired me to get into this work to begin with was the notion that if I could use my story or my voice as a way to help others in any way related to this topic, that was really compelling to me. So I speak a lot, whether it’s telling my story or doing training, and the idea behind the TED Talk was to just really help people understand both the experience of what it’s like to be a survivor, but also the importance of educating students about how to be in safe, emotionally healthy, intimate relationships. Because the reality is, in our conversations with students they are hungry for information about how to be in safe, healthy relationships. Oftentimes it’s the adults, unfortunately, that get in the way of giving them the information they need.  

So part of what we talk a lot about and what I mentioned in my TED Talk was that, for example, because many kids have smartphones these days, the average age that students, that children are exposed to porn range from eight to 13. That is a staggering statistic. The fact is that if we don’t help kids understand that that is not what healthy relationships are all about, then that’s what they believe they are. So it’s really up to us to help interrupt that belief and give them an alternative. If we don’t, that will increase the number of incidents. 

Bennett: Have you seen any resources that are particularly good at helping students understand what sexuality is and isn’t? 

Forbes: One book comes to mind that I think is particularly powerful. It’s called Sexual Citizens. It was written by a gentleman who actually attended and then taught at St. Paul’s School and is now a professor at Princeton. He’s a social scientist, and he worked with a co-author, and they spoke primarily to college students. Their whole concept was trying to understand what students needed, what information they needed, and what it meant to be a good sexual citizen. The meaning behind that really hopefully is self-explanatory, but it’s about being in healthy, intimate relationships. So that resource certainly comes to mind. 

There are lots of others just going online and searching. I think there are lots of YouTube and other prerecorded materials that are really useful. We’re in the process actually of creating our curriculum, a social-emotional learning curriculum that we’ll be giving to members so that they can customize that according to their school calendar and the intensity that they have available for that material. So those are just two of what are an incredible number of resources out there. They’re really not hard to find. 

Bennett: How did you get involved with TED Talk? 

Forbes: I happen to know a person who was producing a TED Talk, and she reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’m producing a TED Talk. I know your story. I think it would be a great addition to the theme and the speaker lineup. Is it something that you’d be interested in?” It was something that I had thought about before she ever reached out to me, but I’d never really coalesced around an idea. One of the great things about Ted Talks and the organization of them is they actually help speakers create the TED Talk. So it was a very different experience writing and delivering the TED Talk than most of my speaking because it was an 18-minute format and you have to memorize the whole thing. So there were aspects of it that were absolutely terrifying, but it was well worth it because I’m really proud of how it turned out and certainly have received great feedback from others about it. 

Bennett: How do you want schools to use your talk? 

Forbes: I think it could be a really effective conversation tool, and it can be used in lots of different ways, whether it’s in an advisory or in a residential life situation. It’s available on YouTube, so it’s pretty easy to pull up. Certainly, if anyone’s planning to use it, I would recommend looking at it, viewing it yourself, and of course making sure that you’re letting people know before you share it with anyone what the topic is, just so that you’re creating a safe space for people and giving people an option to opt out if they want to. But assuming you’ve done all of that, there are lots of segments within it or playing the full 18 minutes that are great conversation starters.  

Everything from the statistics about the number of people who are victimized every year to the cost of supporting people who have been victimized — up to $2 trillion annually is actually the cost, which is actually funded by the U.S. government. So there are some really startling sort of informational pieces. Then what’s more near and dear to my heart, is helping people understand what the survivor experience is and how to support people who have been abused, whether you’re an ally, a friend, or whether you’re a school leader and you want to create a survivor-centered approach or maintain a survivor-centered approach and a trauma-informed approach to your investigation and response. So I think there’s really something for everyone in that, for parents as well. I just think it’s a great resource and encourage people to check it out. 

Bennett: I agree. It’s an excellent resource. Now, speaking more broadly. In your position with Learning Courage, you’re constantly working with schools, so you always have a particular viewpoint on trends. So I’m going to ask you to share it. What are some major issues that you’re seeing, and how can schools work to prevent them? 

Forbes: I think you have to start at mental health. It’s the most obvious and prominent, in many cases, topic that schools are confronting. Schools that have the resources and the commitment are actually creating wellness centers. That’s not just focused on mental health, but looking at mental health and wellness in a holistic way. I think that’s a very positive development. Recognizing that students can’t learn in the same way if they are distracted in any way, and whether it’s because of something happening at home or they’re experiencing some other issue that is a distraction. The idea behind supporting mental health is making sure that students are available for the learning that the school really focuses on. 

So I think that’s probably one of the most significant trends. Within that, what we’re also seeing is a greater level of comfort and understanding that focusing on preventing incidents and responding in ways that keep survivors at the center is an absolutely essential part of wellness. Not so long ago, there was a lot of stigma associated with even talking about sexual misconduct. It was almost a taboo subject that no one really wanted to talk about. So we’ve seen a real change in that way, where school leaders understand that not only do they need to deal with it, but they’re actually more comfortable talking about it, talking about being proactive about it, and they recognize that that’s a positive thing. 

Bennett: And that’s it for today’s episode. Thank you, Jamie, for joining me today. 

Forbes: Thanks, Melanie. Great to see you. 

Host: From United Educators Insurance, this is the Prevention and Protection Podcast. For additional episodes and other risk management resources, please visit our website at 

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