Melanie Lynch knows what some high school students like to do with their weekends.
As a health and sex education teacher at State College Area High School, Lynch has always maintained a close relationship with her students. And she admits she hears plenty of things.
With State High just minutes away from Penn State, it isn’t difficult for local high school students to attend college parties, something Lynch said scares her a great deal.
“Our kids are at those parties,” she said. “Some of the kids tell me way too much. I always try to take it from a ‘Let’s talk about this and what you were thinking’ standpoint.”
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There are many reasons Lynch is afraid to have her students attend college parties, and one is the possibility of sexual assault.
Lynch has been teaching sex education at State High for 19 years. She also is a Penn State alumna and, therefore, thinks she has a handle on the subject.
When Lynch is teaching a class or speaking to students outside the classroom, safety at parties is something she always preaches, though she has to be careful about how she approaches it, she said.
“You have to be delicate when talking to them,” she said. “You don’t want to say, ‘If you’re drinking, then you’re asking for it.’ With guys, I throw my two cents in. I even go as far as saying, ‘If a girl isn’t giving a yes, just get out of there.’ ”
Although, Lynch said, there have been no specific incidents of sexual assault at State High, she still worries about it because of the presence of alcohol at college parties.
College students and high school students don’t go to parties for the same reasons — and that’s where the trouble begins, Lynch said.
“The underage drinker in college is there to blow off steam,” she said. “For a high school kid, they’re prime picking. They want to be a part of that grown-up environment and this may be one of the first times they’ve experienced alcohol. It’s not like they’re walking into the party announcing they’re 16.”
Lynch was named Pennsylvania’s health educator of the year in 2004 and the Eastern District’s health education teacher of the year in 2012. Over the years, she has had speakers who do research on sexual assault talk to her students.
According to the researchers, alcohol is almost always involved.
“I think a lot of people wouldn’t have made the same decisions if they weren’t under the influence,” Lynch said.
Girls just don’t have the same amount of strength they may have when they’re sober, she said.
She also said there is always the possibility that high school students could refrain from pressing assault charges because they are afraid to admit they were drinking.
Lynch was adamant that she has no evidence to suggest that this is happening but that it is something she thinks needs to be addressed.
Jeff Miles and Brian Griffith, the superintendents of the Bald Eagle Area and Penns Valley Area school districts, respectively, share Lynch’s concern about what can happen to high school students attending college parties.
For Miles, it isn’t about being in close proximity to a university that worries him, he said. It is the general apprehension that comes with supervising minors.
“Any time students aren’t in the building, you’re concerned,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re any more influenced by it being near (Penn State). It could happen at other schools, like Lock Haven or Penn.”
Sexual assault “is something we’re always focused on and keeping an eye on. We have assemblies on drugs and alcohol, and we try to teach students about good decision-making,” Miles said.
Griffith agrees. With Penns Valley about half an hour away from Penn State, it isn’t the location that bothers him as much as the idea of his students drinking.
“As far out as we are, if students are engaging in risky behavior or near alcohol, then those are things we absolutely talk about,” Griffith said. “We have programs that talk about sexual assault and we have drug and alcohol programs. That being said, there’s always room for improvement.”
When it comes to making decisions at parties, it isn’t just girls who need to be careful. Lynch said she worries about male students too.
“One thing I realized when talking to people is that boys don’t think about getting roofied (drugged) by other men,” Lynch said. “But it is something that can happen.”