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Teens build website to raise sexual assault awareness

The Jonesboro Sun - 12/6/2017

JONESBORO - In Arkansas, an estimated 420,000 women and 375,000 men have been victims of physical abuse, rape or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lives, according to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control. At the time, the figure represented about 36 percent of those 18 or older in the state.

That's a statistic not lost on the members of a local branch of Girls Who Code, a free club for area girls grades 6-12 hosted by the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library. The initiative is targeted at getting more women involved in coding, the process of creating computer software, apps and websites and to combat a steep gender discrepancy in the tech industry.

Seeing both a local and a national sexual assault, consent, harassment and culture problem, the Jonesboro group plans to use its newly-learned coding skills to build a website for other locals seeking information and resources on the issue.

"It's a very relevant topic with all the allegations that have been coming out nationally," said Kennon Harrington, a ninth-grader at Douglas MacArthur Junior High, "plus, everyone needs to know the basics of consent before they become an adult."

Each Girls Who Code branch is given their choice of topic to pursue, said Teen Librarian Jessica Horton, who oversees the local group. After meeting with the group, the girls involved expressed interest in tackling the issue.

"What they expect of each branch is to look at their community and decide on an issue that needs to be addressed and then to address that through technology, either with a website or a device," Horton said. "A lot of groups get robots and program them."

Horton said the group discussed hunger, homelessness, animal abuse, teen pregnancy and drugs, but ultimately settled on sexual assault awareness.

"All of the other issues, they could see being addressed in Arkansas," Horton said. "What we couldn't find is people addressing this stuff here."

Harrington agreed the issue was a difficult one to confront, but highlighted a real need in her community. With the recent #MeToo movement online inspiring women around the world to come forward that they, too, had experiences with sexual assault and harassment, Harrington said she felt that a website geared toward education and providing resources may also have a profound effect. Together, the group named their site, #ME TOO, Arkansas.

Horton said the group is hoping to present the site to at least one area school once it's finished. The group started work in September and will continue through February, she said. For now, the site has a homepage, but lacks navigational function.

Participants don't have to come to every session or even have experience with coding. The group meets at 4:30 p.m. Mondays at the library.

Dr. Phil Hestand, who directs the Arkansas State University Counseling Center, said Tuesday outreach efforts like the group's are needed.

The center offers sexual assault and consent voluntary outreach efforts and information to students, in addition to counseling services. Hestand said the school has a mandatory class for incoming freshmen, which covers the issues, but that he felt students should get the message earlier.

"I think there are a lot of students who, when they arrive here, don't have a good understanding of a lot of the issues," he said. "They have a good grip on appropriate decent behavior, but they don't have an understanding of legal issues around consent of what constitutes harassment."

That's where Harrington said she feels the group's website can step in.

"I don't think there's enough information given out at schools or to counselors that can be distributed to students so they can be better educated on the topic," she said.


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