Hashtag Raises Awareness About Sexual Assault Among Kansas City Area High School Students

Feb 6, 2017

Last September, a sexual assault in a bathroom at Shawnee Mission East High School raised concern among students and parents.. A 15-year-old Leawood boy has since pleaded guilty in juvenile court to the charges.

But it was something beyond the assault that really got Kansas City area students talking. It started with a hashtag. 

#WearBlackToStopAttacks

Members of the Shawnee Mission East Feminist Club came up with the idea and designated a day for students to wear black in solidarity with the freshman victim and all victims of sexual assault.

And it went far beyond East's hallways. Students at schools across the metro were inspired. Many started tweeting photos, using the hashtag.

Even area colleges got involved.

One student who heard about the hashtag was Peyton Capehart. She's a senior at Bonner Springs High School, where she says sexual assault is definitely a topic of conversation among students.

"Everyone's like, 'It's prom coming up, you need to be careful, here's all these stories of everything that could possibly go wrong,'" Capehart says. "And you hear a lot of stories over the summer of people going out without adult supervision. Suddenly, it's a large group chat, 'Oh my goodness, did you hear what happened to that kid who lives three towns over?'"

That's when the Shawnee Mission East sexual assault came onto her radar -- that one sparked a really long group chat. Capehart says it hit home for her, because it actually happened at a school. And, she can't exactly not use the bathroom.

"I always have the option of saying, 'No, I don't feel like going to a party' if I hear that story," she says. "I don't just get to say, 'I don't want to go to school.'"

Before this incident, Capehart had an idea for her senior project. She wanted to start an after-school group to talk about sexual assault and all the problems that lead to it. When she saw the "Wear Black to Stop Attacks" movement swarm her social media feeds, she was convinced.

So, she called MOCSA, the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault. Prevention specialist Katie Russell remembers her surprise and excitement when Capehart reached out. She had just started trying out a new youth-lead prevention program through MOCSA. 

Katie Russell sits at her desk at MOCSA, one of a handful of cubicles in 'education alley.' Out of around 50 staff members, about 11 are dedicated to youth education.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3

They partnered up, and soon, nine students at Bonner Springs High School started gathering every Wednesday after school.

"I didn't think sexual assault was the biggest problem out there today, but I now know it's a lot bigger than I thought it was," says a Bonner High junior named Blake. 

He says he got involved because many of his friends have been victims of sexual assault and harassment.

When Capehart first had the idea to start the group last fall, she had big ambitions.Her friends were supportive, but "didn't want to get involved."

Which surprised her, at least a little, considering that, statistically speaking, there's a survivor in every classroom. But, she found out, that doesn't mean her peers understand sexual assault.

"A lot of them picture something violent, people being thrown against a bed, table, wall," Capehart says.

Bonner Springs High School senior Peyton Capehart stands in front of a poster of her senior project, 'Students Fight Back,' a year-long after-school group dedicated to fighting sexual violence.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3

In reality, data shows that sexual assault is most likely to be carried out by someone the victim knows. And it can manifest in confusing, non-aggressive ways, like someone giving you too many drinks.

After the incident at Shawnee Mission East, and the solidarity movement, the culture and conversation around sexual violence among Kansas City area students, like at Bonner Springs, started changing. MOCSA's education director Melanie Austin has seen that. 

"This past fall, I think I responded to four students within a month's time," Austin says. 

Typically, counselors request services and advice for action from MOCSA, not students. But, like Capehart, it seems other metro students are ready to take it upon themselves to fight and prevent sexual assault.

In recent meetings, Capehart's group has started planning a "spirit week" to raise awareness about the language high school students use that normalizes certain behavior that leads to sexual assault -- the kind of language you might hear in hallways, or classrooms.

"I had a friend tell me earlier today that he was going to rape the school," Capehart says. "I was like, 'Do you understand what that means? Do you understand what you just said?'"

For now, it's clear there's a lot of work to be done. But Peyton knows one thing for sure: she's more ready now than she ever has been to make a change.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. Reach her by email at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @adtudhope.