‘Sexual Justice Ambassadors’ Focus on College-Age Youth

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When Anna Giannicchi was a high school student preparing for college, she realized that few of her teachers were willing to speak directly about an issue she knew not only preoccupied her friends—but was hard to avoid in the popular media.

“The idea of rape is so scary for people, but it (should be) OK to talk about,” said Giannicchi. “There shouldn’t be shame or fear or guilt.”

Giannicchi, now at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, is part of a group of students who have developed a pilot program to help college-bound high schoolers and first-year college students deal with the forms of sexual aggression they might encounter on and off campus.

The “Sexual Justice Ambassadors” program, with support from the New York City Mayor’s Office and women’s advocacy groups, is set to begin next year.

Mariell Ellis (left) and Anna Giannicchi. Both students have also written plays as part of the “Seeing Rape” course.

The student “ambassadors” plan to visit high schools in the metro New York area to lead discussions aimed at giving both young men and women the communications skills to recognize and head off unwanted sexual behavior.

“We underestimate students, but they’ve already dealt with some tough situations…and it’s important to have these conversations,” added Marell Ellis, another John Jay student in the program. “It’s just as important as learning how to balance a checkbook.”

Both women discussed the program with Crime Report editor Stephen Handelman in an episode of “Criminal Justice Matters,” a monthly CUNY-TV program, which aired this week.

campus sex assault

The short student-written dramas in the John Jay course are performed by professional actors

The program is an outgrowth of a course called “Sex, Gender and Justice: Seeing Rape,” which provides students with both the historical context and a “vocabulary” for discussing a subject that has long been taboo in popular culture.

Launched four years ago, the course is the only one of its kind in the U.S., according to John Jay Prof. Shonna Trinch, who team-teaches it with another John Jay professor, Barbara Cassidy.

“We hope this will become a national model,” said Trinch, who conceded there was some initial resistance on the campus to addressing such a sensitive subject as part of the college curriculum.

But the courses, which also encourage students to write short dramas about sexual violence issues that are performed by professional actors at the end of the semester, have been popular. More than 70 John Jay students, including men and women, signed up for last fall’s course.

The instructors guide students through the various ways rape is concealed or overlooked in a popular culture that is often saturated with sexual themes.

John Jay professors Barbara Cassidy (left) and Shonna Trinch team-teach the groundbreaking course on Seeing Rape.

“If we don’t ‘see’ rape, we don’t know it’s there,” said Prof. Cassidy, who is also a playwright. “We give students a vocabulary to talk about it.”

Trinch pointed out that the course tries to steer clear of politics, although she notes that attention to sexual harassment and abuse figured prominently during the last national election campaign, and efforts to address concerns about sex assaults on campus are now the focus of debate under the new administration.

“The tone has changed,” she said.

See also the Sept 14, 2017 TCR story by Megan Hadley, ‘Will Trump Weaken Title IX Protections?”

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