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Look at it this way A game plan to stem sexual violence

September 23, 2018

My back pages are starting to overlap.

Eighteen years ago, I was talking with Cathy Malloy shortly after she took over as executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Education Center in Stamford.

Malloy, who is now Connecticut’s first lady, strayed from outlining her primary goals to note the challenge of addressing inappropriate behavior in high school locker rooms.

Twenty-three years ago, I tangled with legendary Greenwich High School football coach Mike Ornato over a story that went viral before the phrase existed (“The shame of Greenwich,” a Newsweek headline blared). Five white GHS seniors coded a racist, violent message in the yearbook. Some outlets misidentified all five as football players. Only three of them played for Ornato.

“Did they learn this as part of athletics?” Ornato barked, arguing that reporters didn’t point fingers at the students’ common religion or middle school. “Is it my responsibility to cover this in the locker room?”

Thirty-five years ago, I experienced first-hand news coverage of sexual misconduct for the first time, as my college paper dueled with New York tabloids covering one of our coaches being dismissed because of a relationship with one of her athletes.

These memories surfaced last week as I talked with organizers of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation Fund for Women & Girls’ promising initiative to stem sexual violence by training high school coaches on guiding students to have healthy relationships.

Tricia Hyacinth, director of the fund, said the effort is the outcome of members of the Norwalk-based agency asking “What can we do about this groundswell of sexual misconduct?”

They took the novel step of reaching out to nonprofits to form a cohort. The foundation created a renewable grant totaling $100,000 that resulted in “The Sexual Violence Prevention Collaborative of Fairfield County.” Their “Coaches as Partners” project will begin with online and in-person training of high school coaches.

Other memories were revived by news of the collaboration between YWCA Greenwich, The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford, Bridgeport’s Center for Family Justice, the Triangle Community Center in Norwalk and the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury.

In past meetings with agencies such as these, I’ve been struck by how the scramble for funding positions them as rivals when they could be on the same team.

“They see themselves as competing for funds,” said Stamford resident Juanita James, president of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation.

The foundation is taking the welcome step of serving as a bridge between agencies that help victims of the most deplorable of crimes. At a time when cases of misconduct are being exposed, the effort aims to speak directly to the next generation.

I raised the concern to James that there is a danger in limiting the effort to the athletic community, of reinforcing labels and bypassing students in need of the same guidance.

James acknowledged the challenge: “We have to start someplace ... And this is a good place to start.”

She summoned a sports term — cross training — to express the hope that the message can ripple throughout the student population.

Ornato may not have recognized the racism scandal as a teachable moment in 1995, but one of his successors was ahead of the curve on the current movement. Currently in his fourth season at the helm, John Marinelli has already been celebrated as a game-changer.

Marinelli says he was humbled (“I don’t feel I deserved it”) to receive the YWCA Greenwich’s Purple Ribbon Award a year ago for his efforts to combat teen dating violence. Marinelli brought members of the YWCA’s community education team to the school to discuss warning signs of abuse and consent.

The curriculum consists of more than bumper-sticker slogans; they are sobering reality checks. Though Marinelli may feel uncomfortable taking on the position of the movement’s quarterback, he knows this work is far more important than — his words — “x’s and o’s.”

Marinelli brings in several speakers each season (former New York Giant Cedric Jones, for example, talked about the importance of academics). Stemming sexual violence is where Marinelli says they want to “plant their flag.” There are easier social issues to embrace, but could any be more important?

“We want to own this topic,” he said, hitting “own” like a tackling dummy.

The cross-training model worked even before the foundation stepped in. One of Marinelli’s former assistant coaches, Scott Stone, is emulating the life lesson model as head coach of the Westhill High School boys’ lacrosse team in Stamford.

Marinelli said he would consider it a success to change “one or two” outcomes. The goal may seem modest, but consider the lives that are changed if a single assault is prevented.

In years to come, 2018 may be remembered as the time another Supreme Court nominee faced accusations of sexual misconduct; when Bill Cosby was found guilty of assault; when heads of movie studios, television networks and a Catholic Cardinal lost their positions over sex abuse scandals.

Maybe it can also be remembered as a time when the #MeToo movement changed the future.

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time. Jbreunig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twitter.com/johnbreunig.

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