Jonathan Aguiar met with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on a Christopher Columbus High School trip to Washington, D.C. He spoke to her about his Know More campaign to prevention sexual assault and gave her a blue bracelet the organization sells as a reminder of its commitment to end sexual assault. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Teens from two Miami high schools team up to educate peers about combating sexual assault

MIAMI  |  Christopher Columbus High School graduate Jonathan Aguiar wants his peers to combat the attitudes of tolerance and complacence that perpetuate a scourge of sexual assault on college campuses across the United States.

And the graduate of Christopher Columbus High School thought this awareness had to happen before he and his peers headed off to college.

Aguiar, the 2017 salutatorian of the all-boys school, first considered the sensitive topic in 2015 while following the trial of a Stanford University swimmer convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a fraternity party.

“One of my friends said that sexual assault was a reality of college life and there was nothing we could do about it and that really angered me,” he said. “Another thing is I have a lot of my friends who are girls and are going to different college campuses and they tell me that’s one of their biggest fears.”

He considered how to take action when Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart senior Regina Morfin brought up the issue after watching “The Hunting Ground,” on how victims are silenced. Carrollton is an all-girls school in Miami.

“People don’t really want to confront or want to go up and tell someone about this issue because they feel some sort of shame even though they shouldn’t,” Morfin said. “It’s a common issue but no one really realizes because it’s kept so quiet.”

So together their senior year, they and friends from Columbus and Carrollton established the Know More campaign to educate peers. Aguiar kicked off the project at Columbus with an awareness week last December featuring former University Miami football player Ché Scott, whose mother was sexually assaulted.

They also sold blue Brazilian wish bracelets at both schools with proceeds benefitting Kristi House. And Aguiar designed a website filled with statistics, prevention resources and a pledge that has garnered nearly 2,700 signatures.

“I think we’re sort of isolated from that issue. We’re a little desensitized to it,” said Aguiar, a member of St. Hugh Parish in Miami. His goal is to prepare students before they go to college, to educate them about what to do in certain situations to prevent sexual assault. “It’s my hope that we can fundraise to help expand this message to other school districts across the country,” he said. Because although it’s happening at college campuses, “we need to strike at its sources. And it’s the values we instill, the perception that it gets in high schools.”

The politically driven youth even took his message to Washington on a school trip in February. Through the Close Up Foundation, he landed meetings with Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who recognized Know More on the House floor.

Aguiar is applying for nonprofit status for the organization and board members will be spreading the message at their university communities. Aguiar will begin an elite seven-year undergraduate/medical degree program at Northwestern University with a long-term career goal in medicine and public policy. Morfin will study engineering at the University of Miami and seeks to give presentations on sexual assault featuring victim testimony at local high schools.

“One of the board members is actually going to Northwestern with me, my friend. Another is going to Notre Dame, University of Central Florida, University of Miami. It’s really something we started very isolated here in the South Florida community but something that we really want to become a national network for discussion,” Aguiar said. “We want to bridge the gap between high school and colleges and make the transition more effective and stop the problem at its root.”

The problem is indeed widespread, according to statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center: One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college and more than 90 percent of these crimes are never reported.

Aguiar finds that one of the toughest challenges is showing them that they are affected by this “because these are their mothers, our sisters, our friends, girlfriends, aunts, grandmothers,” he said. “One of the things we really talk about is party settings. We always try to encourage students to not be involved with drugs but if they do decide to drink or use alcohol to be responsible about it. For girls especially to always have somebody they can trust at a party if something does go wrong. We encourage everybody who has been affected by an issue like this to contact the national hotline for rape and sexual assault.”

The four-year debater also challenges common assumptions.

“The best way that young men can truly make an impact in this issue is to listen. Often times, most males view rape or assault accusations as false; and that’s truly unfortunate. I think in starting this campaign we’re really trying to change the view of rape culture in society and foster a discourse where individuals can share their stories.”

Aguiar said his values of faith and charity inspire him to speak out for the less fortunate. “That’s one of the reasons today why I’m so motivated to help give others a voice.”

Morfin is also committed to social justice and feels inspired to step out of her comfort zone and speak on behalf of victims. She received an affirmation of the campaign when a friend confided, with shame and guilt, that she had been raped.

“She found out I was doing this and came to me and told me about it so it further emphasized that I was doing the right thing,” recalled Morfin. “I’m really excited to keep expanding this project and bring it to more than just Carrollton and Columbus… I’ll be trying to reach out to other Catholic schools.”

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