It was a year ago yesterday that police say seven men beat up and raped a 16-year-old Richmond High School girl for more than two hours before anyone called 911. The victim had just left the school’s Homecoming Dance. Several people reportedly witnessed the crime and took no action to stop it; how many bystanders were there is disputed.
In the days immediately following the crime, rape prevention instructor Rhonda James excoriated the school district for denying her request to teach workshops at the high school. James directs Community Violence Solutions, a nonprofit that offers what’s called “bystander training” in how to intervene to stop a rape. School officials subsequently allowed James’ program into the school.
Community Violence Solutions began holding the workshops at Richmond High last year in the wake of the high-profile case.
News outlets swarmed the school. Many Richmond High students felt the media attention created a distorted label for students, their school, and Richmond overall.
“They even mentioned the school in “Law and Order.” They used it as an example,” said Andy Sanchez, a senior at Richmond High.
James says media attention casting Richmond as a particularly violent place made her work with students a little tougher.
“They say, ‘How dare the world see us as animals?’” says James, “And they’re so focused on that that there isn’t room for compassion.” Instead of talking about what happened and why, she said, people wanted to distance themselves from the crime.
But James said it’s important to shift the focus from blaming the city, to examining the social psychology at work when young men gather.
Community Violence Solutions’ training, called My Strength, was developed by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault. It recruits young men to analyze the language and images used to represent masculinity. Physical strength—its benefits and abuses—is the focal metaphor. T-shirts emblazoned with “My strength is not for hurting” are given out in the hope that the message will catch on.
“We discuss terms like ‘fronting’ and ‘manning up,’” says training director Jack Schmidt. “And we talk about the consequences of violence. Like jail time.”
The key, James said, is offering a different view of positive masculinity. “There’s not some secret boys school where you learn to be bad to women,” James said. “It happens because of uninterrupted messages rather than something that’s being taught to them.”
James said her her experience and research show that when one person voices his moral instinct it sways others to do the same.
“There is a tendency to agree with the group until a voice of dissension pipes up, breaking the stupor,” said James. “Most of this change happens one-to-one. “I’m not talking about going out and prosthelytizing. I’m talking about saying, ‘Dude, that’s not cool.’ That’s really all it takes sometimes.”
James thinks it’s important to make the distinction between those people who stood by without stopping the incident and those who actively participated.
The witnesses who failed to intervene in the crime were not sociopaths, James suggested. “As human beings it’s hard to move outside of what appears to be the norm,” she said, even if it happens suddenly and is violent. “And the longer you wait the less likely it is that you are going to intervene.”
Community Violence Solutions has an agreement with De Anza and Richmond High to hold workshops this year. James hopes discussions about gender and violence become a fixture in school curriculums.
“It’s not effective to sprinkle schools with information,” she says. “We’re starting earlier and focusing more on boys.”
James says the seeds of prevention can be planted early.
“Before you find yourself in that situation,” she says, “you will already have made the decision” to speak up.