This article written by Shane Donglasan originally appeared in The Observer on July 30, 2018.
Minnah Stein has been nationally recognized for her work addressing sexual assault in Sarasota high schools.
Minnah Stein is on a mission to educate Sarasota high school students about a difficult, yet pervasive topic. A 17-year-old recent graduate of Pine View School, Stein has been advocating to change the way sexual assault, consent and safety are discussed in schools.
In 2014, she heard a news story on NPR that reported one in five girls will be sexually assaulted in college, as will one in 16 boys, but that about 80% of those students would not report their assault. Stein realized the problem doesn’t begin in college campuses, but in elementary and middle schools.
“It really shocked and angered me because it’s such a pressing issue I wasn’t aware of,” Stein said.
A 2017 investigation by the Associated Press revealed 17,000 reports of sexual assaults committed by elementary, middle, and high school students against classmates between the fall of 2011 and spring of 2015. Stein decided to take action by creating EMPOWER U, a community-outreach organization aimed to teach students about sexual assault awareness and what constitutes consent.
“It was really important for me to address this problem early at its core so it won’t be a problem in the workplace or college,” she said.
Her first EMPOWER U initiative was a pledge drive organized in 2015. More than 200 Sarasota high schoolers throughout the county took a pledge to help keep their peers safe from sexual violence and to create an environment in which sexual assault survivors are supported. Wanting to do more, Stein developed a program to screen the documentary “It Happened Here” in each of Sarasota County’s high schools. The film follows sexual assault victims at college campuses who transformed their experiences into a springboard for change. But persuading the school district to screen the documentary was an uphill battle that took eight months of meetings with school officials and sexual assault experts. Her perseverance paid off and the program was able to reach more than 2,000 students. Stein said she felt like it made a significant impact.
“The best part for me was always the questions students ask after they viewed the documentary,” she said. “You could just tell how engaged they were when they found out this was a problem, and they could do something about it.”
Stein’s commitment to this issue has earned her national recognition as one of 15 recipients of the 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award. Sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation in San Francisco, the award honors Jewish teens around the country for their leadership and commitment to social good. Stein received $36,000 and will attend an awards ceremony on Aug. 20 in San Francisco. She plans to use the award towards her education and will attend Florida State University this fall with the goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer.
Her work with EMPOWER U is not over, however. She has spent her summer working on implementing a new sexual assault awareness program in Sarasota high schools through a partnership with Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a national organization that advocates for K-12 students’ right to an education free from sexual harassment.
The program will involve screening “Sexual Harassment: Not in Our Schools!,” a video Stein helped produced. The video addresses gender discrimination and informs students about their Title IX rights, which legally protects them from discrimination, harassment or violence on the basis of gender in educational settings.
Her push has led the Sarasota County Schools’ Safe and Drug-Free Schools Advisory Committee to approve the program which has the potential to impact 40,000 students.
“My goal is not only to raise awareness of sexual harassment and assault in K-12 schools but also to give educators and students the tools they can use to take action in their communities to make their schools safe places to learn for all students,” Stein said.