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By Michael Boriero – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Quebec’s Education Minister Jean-François Roberge recently announced the government’s commitment to studying the correlation between the impact of sexual violence and school dropout rates.

In a press release, Roberge admitted a link could exist, but his department is unable to take action due to insufficient data. Christine Labrie, Québec Solidaire’s education critic, said schools must play a greater role in preventing and responding to sexual violence.

“Not only must our schools provide an environment free of sexual violence, but they also have a preventive role to play by addressing the notion of consent and healthy relationships in depth, and by allowing young victims to be taken care of quickly,” she said.

Labrie is one of the reasons for getting this study off the ground. According to the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), 16 per cent of Quebecers have experienced sexual assault with contact before the age of 18, Labrie explained.

These are young people in the prime of their educational lives, she continued, schools need to be there to support them. She added that many teachers are too afraid to bring up the subject in class; they aren’t trained to handle these types of situations.

The problem is elementary and high schools don’t have enough resources to intervene when a student discloses a traumatic event like sexual assault. Most teachers, or schools at large, don’t have the right information to do it, said Sabrina Charest-Prévost.

Charest-Prévost works as an intervener at the Centre d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel (CALACS) Aggression Estrie, an organization that helps women 12 years of age and over who have been victims of sexual assault.

CALACS participates with a number of schools across the province in order to educate students and faculty about the realities of sexual assault, how to communicate with a victim, and the necessary steps to take in the healing process.

The Empreinte program, one of their most popular options, consists of six meetings where CALACS educators discuss, among other things, sexual assault prejudices, consent, and sexual exploitation. But they can barely meet all of their requests.

“It’s a very good program and it’s very complete,” Charest-Prévost said. “I think it’s very useful for schools and that’s why we have so many demands, but we can’t do it because we don’t have the resources.”

It’s possible that sexual assault and school dropout rates are connected, she added, but the numbers aren’t concrete even in CALACS’ database. She noted that victims might develop difficulty sleeping and low self-esteem, which can affect school performance.

“The link is not really clear but what we have in our statistics is 46.5 per cent of the demands here are made by women between 12 and 23 years old, so they are in the age of going to school,” she said.

According to Charest-Prévost, on average female victims take about five years to come out about it. If she isn’t supported properly, or receives negative reactions, she may never talk about it again, she said. Charest-Prévost believes younger children need to hear this.

CALACS only works in high schools at the moment, but the goal is to eventually make their way into elementary schools. But Charest-Prévost, who has a degree in sexology, said parents think early childhood sex education is too extreme; she disagrees.

Young women are often dismissed even today when they bring up sexual assault allegations, she explained, it happens most of the time. It would be wise to start educating people about that in elementary school, she concluded.

“Sexual education is a long process and we should start early, the Empreinte program is six hours so obviously, even if it’s a good thing, it’s not enough,” Charest-Prévost said.

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