To prevent relationship and sexual violence, Mpls. school starts early
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On a recent school day at North High School, head football coach Charles Adams sat down with junior wide receiver Nasir El-Amin. There was no playbook or off-season workout plan to go over.
Instead, Adams thumbed through a collection of index cards containing a host of questions that focus on areas such as personal responsibility. The two then went over some of the questions they first started asking each other last fall.
"How do your actions off the field represent the team, your school and your community?" asked Adams.
"Being part of a team, it's not just you anymore, so anything you do will affect your team — good or bad — it will reflect the team and the school as a whole," El-Amin responded.
In recent months, as the #MeToo movement has grown, women have come forward to allege sexual misconduct from high-profile athletes in the Twin Cities, including Gopher basketball standout Reggie Lynch and Twins star Miguel Sano. Those cases have raised questions about reaching out to young athletes about respectable behavior.
But well before the movement, athletic departments at schools like North High have started taking steps to change the locker room culture at their level.
Launched in 2007, the Coaching Boys Into Men program was developed by the national nonprofit Futures Without Violence. It aims to prevent relationship abuse, harassment and sexual assault.
In Minnesota, high school coaches are required to undergo online training that covers these topics. Participating in outside programs like Coaching Boys Into Men is voluntary, but the city of Minneapolis secured a grant from the Centers For Disease Control to offer the training to local high schools, starting with North High football.
El-Amin said the discussions have opened his eyes, especially when it came to things like bragging about past sexual experiences.
"I didn't really understand how it looked on the outside, when you're doing stuff like that, and how it could ruin somebody's reputation," El-Amin said.
Adams agrees that was a beneficial part of the training. And he said he noticed an improvement in communication among his players, such as intervening when they see or hear something that might cross the line.
"That's a big thing — when there's something that you see that's not right, you having enough courage to step in and tell that person that it's not right," Adams said.
When University of Pittsburgh researchers evaluated the program, they observed the same thing, noting that participants were more willing to intervene when seeing questionable behavior from their peers.
April Graves, a specialist with the Minneapolis Health Department, helped facilitate the training at North. She said getting kids to engage is huge since these topics can be pretty awkward for high school kids.
"Young people are going to be resistant, and wondering, 'Why are you trying to talk to me about this kind of thing?' There's probably some insecurity," Graves said.
Despite those barriers, Graves said it's important to have these conversations at the high school level, as uncomfortable as they might be.
"At this time, especially adolescence, that's when you're really starting to understand those kind of intimate relationships that you can have," Graves said.
Graves said early intervention can steer young people away from troubled relationships as adults. And she said this type of outreach can resonate in communities like the one surrounding North High, where the school's athletics program and its athletes maintain a high profile.
At the state level, the online training requirement for coaches is necessary to obtain their coaching certificate. And while the Minnesota State High School League doesn't require outside programs like the one being used in Minneapolis, it does provide grant opportunities for schools to seek them out.
In the Twin Cities north metro, Blaine High School volleyball coach Celeste Gorman said she hopes some of these national programs start to gear their training toward female athletes. Gorman said she's seen the issue come up with her players, including how to deal with the fallout from a sexting incident.
"I had to walk a girl through the process of how to deal with that form of exposure," Gorman said.
In the general conversation surrounding harassment and boundaries, Gorman said she thinks the female perspective is overlooked.
When interacting with her players, Gorman said the message of empowerment comes up a lot.
"We try to foster an environment where they feel a sense of control and power over their own destiny," said Gorman.
Officials with Coaching Boys Into Men say they've helped developed curriculum that focuses on that very topic. That program for girls, called Athletes as Leaders, launched in 2016.
It's another program aimed at ensuring teenagers learn how to be respectful toward themselves and everyone around them, and not just their opponent on the