High school highlights SWEAR program

Rape prevention group will head to New Hampshire for a retreat.

Along the walk route, there were signs with sexual assault facts, myths and statistics. — Gabrielle Mannino

The Stand With Everyone Against Rape (SWEAR) group at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) will be taking a trip to Camp Hale in New Hampshire as part of a 36-hour retreat that deals with gender-based violence, rape culture, and other related topics. 

During an MVRHS committee meeting Monday evening, wellness coordinator and school adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois said the SWEAR group was first established in 2015 as part of a student’s senior project, and saw great success in following years. 

The program started out doing a one-day retreat at the YMCA, which eventually increased to two days, and now Lilavois wants the program to embark on an overnight trip to Camp Hale in New Hampshire to delve deeper into the tough conversations surrounding rape, sexual assault, and gender-based violence. The camp was connected with the school through former MVRHS administrator of student affairs Dhakir Warren, who attended the camp when he was a child. 

As part of this year’s trip, 25 male students and five female students will head to the camp. The program is funded by a grant in collaboration with Connect to End Violence. 

“The philosophy behind the program is that gender-based violence isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s a men’s issue as well,” Lilavois said. 

School adjustment counselor and co-director of the SWEAR program Matt Malowski said the group will spend the first day at camp discussing healthy masculinity versus toxic masculinity, then will lean more into the myths and repercussions of sexual violence and rape. “When we first started the program, we didn’t think we would have any women the second year. The young men said how important it was for them to have their peers there really sharing what their experiences are,” Lilavois said.

Malowski said on the second day of the retreat, students will discuss statistics surrounding rape and sexual violence, along with some Island statistics provided by Connect to End Violence. 

He stressed that the aftermath of the pandemic is playing out now with teens, and although they tried to keep the SWEAR program going during the pandemic, it was difficult to connect with students without having some kind of retreat.

“The retreat allows us to have these kids’ undivided attention. You can imagine the kinds of conversations we get into, because these topics are so emotional and charged,” Malowski explained. “It’s the best opportunity to grab these students by the heart and really dig into these issues.”

After the program concludes, students who wish to continue in their anti-rape advocacy work can work in middle schools, in health classes to educate younger children on this subject. As the summertime approaches, Lilavois said, the timing of the retreat is extra-important. “We are trying to teach all these kids to be active bystanders instead of just standing by when they are at parties or in social situations,” Lilavois said. She added that students in the SWEAR group host an assembly and a passion speaker each year, as well as conduct educational workshops on Saturdays, and will often mentor younger students during flex periods. “We have even had male students who have interned at Connect after taking this training, and then they go on to college and bring this experience to their schools,” Lilavois said. 


To Zoom or not to Zoom?

During Monday’s meeting, the topic of virtual versus in-person meetings was brought up by committee member Robert Lionette, who wondered why some subcommittee meetings are being held on Zoom and the full committee meetings are in-person only. 

“Did we move to an in-person-only meeting for this for any specific reason? Because hybrid really opens it up to the public, and I think that has been a benefit of the past two years. Is it a cost, a commitment — what is the reason?” he asked.

Committee chair Amy Houghton said the group has received procedural complaints from members of the public that it is difficult to hear and see individual committee members when conducting the meeting in a hybrid format. “With a big group, it’s challenging,” Houghton said. “There have been some ongoing issues.”

Committee member Kris O’Brien said she appreciates providing more accessibility to the public, but also said she can’t keep up with the chat feature that often sparks a parallel conversation that isn’t adequately moderated. “When the chat is going on, I don’t know who is saying what, I don’t know who is here. As a community, I think coming together is really important. If we are all here, I would like to have the public with us, engaging directly with us,” O’Brien said. 

Committee member Kathryn Shertzer said she believes an in-person forum imparts a more expeditious nature to the conversation. “I think there is less ‘You’re muted, we can’t hear you, you’re muted.’ I also think it’s nice to see people’s faces who have come to support our meeting,” Shertzer said. “When it’s just a bunch of icons on a screen and there’s six pages of them, I have no idea who is coming to those meetings. For transparency’s sake, I think it’s nice we are all together in a room and all participating, and not focusing on a million separate devices where there are side conversations happening.”

MVRHS architecture and design teacher Elsbeth Todd was in the audience to voice her perspective. She said it makes sense for the school committee to meet in-person, but from a public point of view, it would be beneficial to continue offering a Zoom option. “It allows people to at least hear what the conversation is in real time, and to ask questions if they wish,” Todd said. “Maybe if the concern is that you don’t know who they are, maybe you require that people preregister, or that they put their full names in their name tag.”

She said many Islanders who want to participate in the school committee meetings simply can’t attend the in-person forum due to family or work obligations. “I would respectfully request that you continue with the Zooms. As far as the audio is concerned, a good microphone in the middle of the table would probably help with that,” Todd added. “I am happy to donate a microphone if you continue the Zooms.”

No decision regarding virtual versus in-person meetings was made. 

Following the theme of transparency in public meetings, committee member Kimberly Kirk wondered what the school policy was for sharing correspondence sent to committee members or administrators from the public. 

“I think it’s fair to the community that sends these in that they get a response,” Kirk said. Committee member Skipper Manter suggested including a correspondence section on each meeting agenda, similar to how select boards and other governing bodies deal with correspondence. “You attach the letters, and then you can talk about them. At that time you can decide whether you want to discuss a certain letter and read it aloud,” Manter suggested. 


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