About one in four families in Sonoma County is affected by domestic violence. And tales of cyberbullying, both anecdotal and empirical, are omnipresent.
To combat both statistics and attitudes, a four-year-old program aims to address sexual violence and bullying, aggression and disrespectful behavior. The classroom? Gymnasiums and ball fields across Sonoma County.
Coaching Boys Into Men is a national program implemented locally that asks middle and high school coaches to introduce concepts and discussions that allow athletes and teammates to tackle the issues that so many young people face.
“The first time or two we did it, the response was kind of like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But after the first few times that we did it, they seemed to take it pretty serious,” said Maria Carrillo boys soccer coach and athletic director Mike Mastin.
“The way we framed it to them is that sometimes things are said, sometimes directed toward females, the way we describe them,” he said. “‘Many of you might have a sister, and all of you have mothers and grandmothers. How would you feel if someone said that about your mom?’ And they’d say, ‘I’d have major issues.’”
Young adults and kids who are bullied are two and a half times more likely to attempt suicide and those who were cyberbullied are three times more likely than others to have suicidal thoughts, according to a 2014 study published by JAMA Pediatrics.
It is estimated that one in five teens is involved in some sort of bullying.
Also present in young peoples’ lives is an additional layer of power dynamics and the potential for emotional and physical abuse in romantic relationships.
The need for education, for support, is clearly there.
Coaches see it. They are volunteering to take it on. But it’s not easy.
“At this point, the district hasn’t mandated it, the school site hasn’t mandated it, so we can’t force coaches to do it,” Mastin said.
Still, at least four squads at Carrillo have signed on. So, too, have teams from Cardinal Newman, Hanna Boys Center, Casa Grande, Montgomery and Petaluma, among others.
But coaches have their hands full. They are compensated precious little when considering the amount of time they are already committing. And their primary focus on many days is simply the next game or the next strategic concept. It’s asking a lot to have them take on as weighty an assignment as how we treat each other, how we stand up for what is right and how we confront someone who is out of line.
That isn’t lost on Madeleine Keegan O’Connell, CEO of YWCA Sonoma County, the group that for four years along with Verity, the community’s sexual assault support agency, has worked to introduce the Coaching Boys Into Men six-week curriculum into Sonoma County middle and high schools through their athletic departments.
Funded by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services, Coaching Boys Into Men trains coaches on a curriculum that includes, among other things, abusive digital behavior, stepping in others treat women in an inappropriate way and honoring personal boundaries in sexual relationships.
“We’ve given them the tools to intervene as a bystander when they see something going wrong,” Keegan O’Connell said.