PAC

A group of 10 Telluride students recently completed the San Miguel Resource Center’s peer advocacy training, which aims to raise awareness and provide resources for students who may experience sexual abuse and violence. (Courtesy photo)

While high school can be awkward and miserable for many reasons, unfortunately, teens also have to worry about sexual assault and abuse. The San Miguel Resource Center, with the help of the Telluride School District, has aimed to address such issues through a recently formed Peer Advocacy Club (PAC), which consists of students who complete training through the center and then serve as a resource to their fellow classmates.

Liz Cooney, the center’s prevention education coordinator, the center’s advocate coordinator Robin Kondracki and Telluride High School Guidance Counselor Alex Jones currently oversee the club.

“Although we coordinate it, the real work and change comes from the participating students,” Cooney explained.

The club was initially created during the 2019-20 school year, when a group of high school students approached resource center staff with concerns about the prevalence of sexual violence they were witnessing amongst peers coupled with frustrations about the reporting process and lack of accountability for perpetrators. But the pandemic put a pause to ongoing club efforts.

“Then at the start of this year, Alex and Sara Kimble (middle and high school principal) approached us seeking support in reducing the rates of sexual assaults happening within the student body, so we restarted PAC with more administrative support and resources, and here we are,” Cooney said.

She explained the evidence-based curriculum is a collaboration between the Sexual Assault Victim Advocate Center and the resource center. According to recent statistics, one in four girls, and one in six boys, experience sexual violence before age 18, as 42 percent of victims experience their first assault before the age of 18.

Such trauma often has serious effects on teens, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation and attempts. In Colorado, 9.5 percent of students report experiencing physical violence in intimate relationships, but this rate is far higher (one in three) for teens who experience any form of abusive relationships, including emotional or stalking.

“Of course, PAC is super important because we know that assaults are happening, and we have to address it on both an interpersonal level and a cultural level,” Cooney said.

Ten students — Merci Craft, Sarah Ireland, Amy Geurrero, Autumn Armstrong, Karla Gutierrez Ruiz, Alain Montano, Autumn Lafferty, Kassidy Atherton, Keller Gilliland and Selma Tutt-Pyk — recently completed the PAC course, which went well, Cooney explained.

“The training was amazing, these students are such a remarkable group. They’re incredibly engaged, compassionate and reflective. It was clear that they were all there with the best intentions, too,” she said. “From their comments and questions, it was evident that these students are strongly motivated by the desire to help and support others, and many already have some experience supporting a friend or peer through some form of harassment or violence. They were there to gain the best skills to do that going forward, and that’s just so inspiring and gives me hope.”

While PAC focuses on sexual abuse and violence prevention, the skills students learn through the course can also help their peers in other areas of day-to-day life.

“One other really cool thing about these students getting trained as advocates is that one of the main roles of an advocate is to help bring back some control to the victim. The experience of sexual violence is one that often strips victims of their bodily autonomy and control, and I think a lack of personal control is something that many teens can relate to in one way or another; many aspects of a teen’s life are determined by adults,” Cooney explained. “So our peer advocates are gaining an incredibly useful skillset to support peers all the time, whether it’s sexual violence, an abusive relationship or even just challenging life stuff that anyone experiences. They can hold space for their peers to have that decision-making and control.”

The PAC will focus on giving presentations and hosting workshops moving forward, including a week dedicated to prevention in February.

“Well, now that people are trained, we’re going to start our monthly club meetings in January and figure out plans for awareness campaigns and presentations in the middle and high schools. I think the biggest plan is that we are bringing back TLC Week (Teens, Love and Consent) the week of Feb. 7, which is a week of workshops for students. We were unable to do it last year due to COVID, so we’re definitely looking forward to bringing it back this year. We still have to figure out all the details, but our peer advocates will be encouraged to help lead some of the workshops, as youth leadership is perhaps most powerful way to promote consent and healthy relationships and actually make cultural changes amongst students.”

For more information about the resource center, visit smrcco.org. If anyone is experiencing sexual or domestic violence, call the resource center’s 24-hour hotline at 844-816-3915.