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Promoting the healthy relationships that lead to safer schools.

Relation ShiftIn January, Justine Finn, Ed.M.’16, booked a conference room and closed the doors. She spent the next four hours writing notes on whiteboards trying to figure out what to do when she went on the job market after HGSE. She always came back to the issue that made her apply to the Ed School in the first place: the need for more education about sexual assault, violence and prevention, and gender inequality.

“‘It’s all you ever talk about,’” Finn says her HGSE colleagues would often comment.

So, considering the shortage of organizations focused on prevention in K–12 schools, she decided to start her own. With the aid of a Harvard Entrepreneurship in Education Fellowship last summer, Finn founded Relation-Shift, an organization that works with K–12 schools to help develop strategies, tools, and policies aimed at preventing sexual and relationship violence while helping students develop healthy identities and relationships.

While the media has in recent years been focusing on sexual assaults at college, Finn says that middle and high school children — even elementary school children — are increasingly experiencing or witnessing high levels of violence and sexual assault and harassment.

“Widespread sexual harassment, bullying, and relationship violence in schools is a reflection of unhealthy assumptions and beliefs about gender, consent, power, and relationships,” Finn says. “Due to shifting attitudes and greater access to media at much younger ages, there is a greater need to develop efforts to empower youth to gain the tools to develop self-knowledge, build positive identities, and make healthy relationship choices.”

Justine FinnResearch shows, says Finn, that 48 percent of students experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010–11 school year, with the majority of those students (87 percent) reporting it had a negative effect on them. Verbal harassment like unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures made up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was also common, she says. Sexual harassment by text, email, Facebook, or other electronic means affected nearly 30 percent of students. Interestingly, many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace were also sexually harassed in person, she says.

This fall she began piloting Relation-Shift in two Massachusetts high schools. Through customized assessment and planning services that align with data, Finn creates tailored transformative learning experiences for educators and students. The program involves several steps, including assessing the challenges and strengths of the school’s response; conducting a climate survey of students, educators, and administrators; developing a plan that helps get the school to where they want to be; and offering transformational learning for school leaders, teachers, and students.

Schools have an opportunity to do this work but haven’t really been “incentivized,” she says. With the recent push from the Obama administration for schools to adhere to Title IX, Finn anticipates additional efforts may be made by educators in the future.

The need for a greater emphasis on prevention is something that Finn noticed throughout her nearly 10 years working on issues of gender inequality at organizations like the Tahirih Justice Center and Futures Without Violence. Finn recognized that response and support for victims – though undoubtedly necessary and important – often outweighed prevention efforts. “Prevention is so much harder to measure and harder to implement,” she says.

She sees schools as the ideal place to focus on prevention through creating safe spaces while building tolerance. When she decided to commit her life to this work, she enrolled in HGSE’s Human Development and Psychology Program to gain more understanding about prevention work in schools.

“When you are 10, 11, or 12, and forming your identity, if a school tells you it’s OK to be treated poorly based on your gender or the way you look, then what message are we sending?” Finn asks.

Part of the problem, she contends, is that these issues are so deeply embedded in society that it can be difficult for educators to know how to respond when issues inevitably arise on campus.

“K–12 educators aren’t prepared to prevent, respond, and resolve issues related to relationship and sexual violence,” Finn says. “We are seeing it manifest in college because no one calls it out in middle and high school. Instead we continue to hear, ‘Boys will be boys.’ But that doesn’t reflect the standards that we set for all of our students. As educators, we have a special opportunity to help our young people develop healthy relationships and identities, and to help build a generation that can live free from relationship and sexual violence and enjoy true equality.”