A group of Grade 9 students at Bicentennial School in Dartmouth are wrapping up the school year having learned more about sexual violence, assault, and harassment with a project they created in their class.
In October, the students, including Athena Woodford, Meredith Gall, and Neil Rissesco, were talking in an informal online class group chat with their classmates when the one of the students brought up the subject of human trafficking in Nova Scotia. All of the students are in Wendy Driscoll’s citizenship, social studies, and English language arts class.
“We all knew a little bit, but no one had the same knowledge, so it was up to what your home life was like and how much you were looking up on it in your own time,” Gall said. “When we all started having discussions, people were learning, people were talking, people were sending what they knew, and sending articles.”
Gall then shared a photo of a t-shirt she designed with a slogan she once saw on a poster at a protest. The first line of the slogan said protect your daughters with a line through it. Another line of text underneath said, “educate your sons.”
“We all loved the t-shirt and wanted to get one,” Woodford said. “We said, ‘Let’s all wear them on Wednesday because why not?’”
With Driscoll’s encouragement, the group decided to create a project to increase awareness of sexual assault, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, hypersexualization, and sexism. They decided the project, which they called 903 Increasing the Conversation, would fit well with a service learning project that is part of Driscoll’s class. Service learning is part of the class curriculum and involves students meeting learning outcomes while addressing a need or challenge in the community.
At first, they thought a few members of the group would make t-shirts for themselves, but they decided to spread the message.
“Then we thought, ‘What’s the biggest way to make an impact with these?’” Gall said. “Then we thought if we all wore them on the same day, then people would notice.”
The students took the project beyond the t-shirts, though. They created posters they hung on the walls at school, and created Instagram page @903educateyourchildren. The students also gave presentations to other junior high classes in the school. In the presentations, the students talked about consent, what to do if they know someone who’s been sexually assaulted, harassed, or trafficked, and how to support that person and where to go to find help.
“In elementary school, we really talked a lot about consent,” Woodford said. “We really wanted to focus on that. If we’re all talking about consent, and we all understand that from a young age, then it makes all these other things a lot less scary.”
According to the students’ research, approximately 600,000 people in Canada are sexually harassed each year. One in three women have been sexually harassed, while the stat is one in eight for men. They also looked at statistics at Avalon Sexual Assault Centre that said in 2011, there were 393 sexual offences reported in HRM, with the most reported cases at 135 in Central Halifax.
The students said the project also helped create a safe space where students could talk about their own experiences.
“In our group chat when we started to talk about it, a lot of girls in our class started to share stories,” Woodford said. “Other people were listening and supportive of it.”
To learn more about sexual violence, the students arranged to have speakers join the class either in person or via Zoom. The speakers included Meghan Doherty, the director of global policy and advocacy from Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights; Jordan Roberts, a sexual health and safety officer with University of King’s College; and Karla MacFarlane, Minister of Community Services, who is responsible for the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
While class 903 got lots of positive feedback the day they wore the t-shirts, not everyone was supportive. Some students took down the posters off the wall or gave dirty looks to the students wearing the t-shirts. Still others students had issue with the line of the slogan “educate your sons.”
“It’s very strong, a lot of people didn’t like it,” Gall said. “We never had the intention of finger pointing. That’s not where we were trying to go with this. We wanted to let people know that it’s not the victims who have to make the change.”
“I feel like us, as Grade 9s, us girls we’ve been told, ‘Don’t wear those shorts, they’re too short. Cover up, there are boys around. Don’t walk alone at night,’” Woodford added. “I feel like all the girls were so passionate about it; yes, educate your sons.”
Driscoll said she was moved that her students took the initiative to learn about the subject outside of class time.
“It’s really what you hope, as a teacher, students do,” Driscoll said. “That they learn something and take the skills they learn at school and do something about it. That’s what service learning is. If they have something they’re really passionate about, that’s where you go with that kind of learning.”
Driscoll said she’d used the project as an example of service learning for her future classes.
“It can be tough as a teacher to navigate those kinds of topics, but they did it with a maturity and cooperation,” Driscoll said.
As the school year heads comes to an end, the project is wrapping up, although the group is now selling the t-shirts with all the proceeds going to Action Canada. Woodford, Gall, and Rissesco are all heading to high school in September, and said they now have more skills to take with them.
“If in high school I do come across a friend who is being trafficked, I know the resources now and the right things to say,” Woodford said.
Gall said besides the subject matter, just working on the project together taught her many skills she said she’ll use in high school and beyond.
“When everyone is collaborative, and working with each other and listening to each other’s ideas, and it’s not just your small group of friends,” Gall said. “And I think it brought us closer. And one of the most exciting things was seeing six or seven guys wear these shirts.”
Rissesco said the message got across to him and his male classmates that they must “be respectful.”
“Most of the boys in our class bought shirts, and some of my friends in the other classes got shirts,” Rissesco said. “So, the boys learned a lot about this, too.”