Some local students will attend a "party" on Wednesday where they will be faced with a decision that potentially could change their lives and the lives of their fellow party-goers forever.
It's not a real party, and lives are not really at stake. Using their phones, tablets or computers, the Linsly School students will become part of a real-time, simulated interactive situation that requires quick action on their parts. Immediately after each individual enters his or her decision, the social media firestorm will begin popping up on their screens, showing the fallout of those choices - good or bad.
The set-up bears a striking resemblance to the recent Steubenville rape case, although the programs, THINKDrink (about alcohol) and THINKLuv (about sex and relationships), was developed prior to the case's notoriety. In the Steubenville case, two juvenile males were found delinquent for sexually assaulting a drunk juvenile female at a party in August. The night of the incident and in the days following, social media played a large role in spreading news, rumors, videos and photographs about it. It also helped build the prosecution's case.
Katie Koestner launched the public dialogue about date rape in America when she spoke out after being attacked in her College of William and Mary dorm room during the third weekend of her freshman year. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine on June 3, 1991.
The program at Linsly is the brainchild of a group of big-name university researchers working with the leaders of Campus Outreach Services, an organization founded by Katie Koestner, who started the national conversation on date rape in the 1990s after being raped in her dorm room at the College of William and Mary. She was on the cover of Time magazine and spoke out to raise awareness about the crime of date rape that previously had gone largely unreported and undiscussed.
THINKDrink/THINKLuv includes the interactive simulation but also uses pre-tests, post-tests, questions to individualize the simulation (gender, age, race, etc.), facts and statistics, and messages to empower the students as bystanders and make them think.
Linsly is one of only 25 top independent schools and colleges nationwide to join Koestner in launching the program. Headmaster Chad Barnett said he was searching for an innovative way to reach his students with these messages at the same time Koestner, who had spoken at the school previously, reached out to him to join the consortium.
"I was finding so many programs that fit this old model of putting up posters about healthy decision making and having someone come in to give a lecture to a passive student audience. That has all been done before," Barnett said. "I wanted a program that would be engaging and that would require students to be active participants rather than passive audience members. ... (Katie's program) really puts kids in the driver's seat, but it does so at a safe distance from actual circumstances."
In a phone interview, Koestner said THINKDrink and THINKLuv is the "latest permutation" of the message she has been delivering for 20 years. "That is, how can we make a difference, how bystanders can make a difference and how all of us can be part of the solution, whether you're a drinker or a non-drinker, sexually active or not sexually active."
There were no bystanders or witnesses to Koestner's rape, which occurred during her third weekend as a freshman. Her report was questioned by many.
Two thousand students signed a petition calling her a liar. Even her parents said she shouldn't speak out. Koestner said after she brought charges against her attacker and he was found guilty, the dean of students told her she hoped she would reconcile with the young man because they made "such a cute couple." She was flabbergasted.
"I decided if it happened, then I was going to do everything in my power that we as a country and perhaps internationally look at the issue of sexual violence, violence against women." A Washington Post reporter wrote an article that was picked up by the news wires. She made the talk show circuit. HBO made a movie about her. She changed her double major from chemical engineering and Japanese to public policy and women's studies, and her Capitol Hill testimony helped pave the way for passage of federal student safety legislation.
She has spoken to 3,000 different schools, conferences, even professional football teams. Her Campus Outreach Services team now has 50 speakers who address a variety of topics in addition to sexual violence and alcohol- bullying, self-image, diversity, hate crimes, eating disorders, suicide and more. Programs can be tailored to any age group from elementary through college.
Barnett said the social media element of THINKDrink and THINKLuv is especially relevant for today's students.
"Students are growing up in a culture where they have access to anything on the Internet, including each other. This unlimited access to information and each other means that adolescents face risks that can unfold quickly, publicly and virally."
He added kids always have faced risks, "but in today's culture, these new tools and social media have added new energy to these problems, as we've seen in cases with the Ohio Valley."
He said that through the program, he hopes the students will think about the impact their decisions can have on others. "That they understand that whether they are actively participating in choices that are hurtful, or are passive bystanders in a situation, that these are issues that have serious consequences. I hope they use this opportunity to reflect upon how they respect themselves and other people."
Local advocacy groups are glad to see Linsly bringing in this program.
"The timeliness of Katie's program is critical because people have been so closely following the case in Steubenville as well as being impacted by it. I think it's a great opportunity to continue to look at what we need to do as far as teaching and awareness. Her approach sounds like a perfect way to connect with this age group because social media is what they do," said Linda Reeves, executive director of the Sexual Assault Help Center Inc.
"We see some substance abuse-related issues that are in dire need of being addressed, such as, parents hosting underage drinking parties, social norms that underage drinking is a normal part of being a teen, media glamorization of drinking alcohol, and an inability to see underage drinking as a problem in the community," said Martha Polinsky, program coordinator for the Ohio County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. "Speakers who address underage consumption as well as the other parts of the problem at hand such as educating girls and boys on what is appropriate, acceptable, beneficial or moral behavior, has our unwavering support."
In addition to the student programs during the day, at 7 p.m. Koestner will present a free one-hour program at the school that is open to the public. She will discuss the role parents play in helping their children develop healthy relationships
"I hope ... it launches a dialogue within the Linsly community and the larger Wheeling community because all of us have to do whatever we can to educate adolescents and prevent them from making destructive decisions," Barnett said. "Linsly's commitment to character has served this community well, and we're hopeful that by opening our doors on April 10 for Katie's presentation that we are expanding our mission to serve a broader public purpose and that the greater Wheeling area benefits from Linsly's commitment to the wellness of all adolescents in the community."