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Veteran actress visits SK to talk dangers of sexual assault

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Actress Torrey DeVitto, left, talks to students at South Kingstown High School after her presentation about sexual assault prevention on Nov. 18.  Her visit was organized by SafeBAE and funded by a grant from the R.I. Department of Health.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Actress Torrey DeVitto has played Melissa on “Pretty Little Liars,” Dr. Fell in “The Vampire Diaries” and Dr. Natalie Manning in  “Chicago Med.”

But her visit to South Kingstown last week was to connect with students about the real-world problem of sexual assault, and to show how they can work within their own community to end it.

DeVitto came to South Kingstown High School as part of a tour of several Rhode Island schools on behalf of SafeBAE, a youth-led national organization aiming to end sexual assault among middle and high school students.

“I remember so vividly what it was like in high school,” DeVitto told the assembled juniors. “Feeling the pressures and wanting to be liked. I remember making choices that made me feel really uncomfortable. And when I saw this, I learned so much. I was like, Why didn’t I know this information when I was 15 or 16 years old? Why did no one tell me my rights? Why didn’t somebody say ‘Hey, you can say no?’”

SafeBAE, in which BAE stands for “Before Anyone Else,” began in 2015. It was co-founded by a trio of teen sexual assault survivors whose experiences were chronicled in the Peabody Award-winning Netflix documentary “Audrie & Daisy.”

DeVitto saw the documentary and felt an immediate need to lend her voice, and some star power, to the cause.  

“It impacted me so greatly. It was 2 in the morning and I called someone to help me reach out to these girls,” she said. She promised herself to pass on what she learned to as many young people as possible.

“There’s shame and secrecy and taboo around this issue,” SafeBAE Executive Director Shael Norris said. Dating violence and sexual harassment not just an issue for girls.

“We’re all impacted,” she said. “Maybe you’re dating someone who’s affected and you don’t even know.”

DeVitto’s presentation ended with dozens of enthused students gathering around DeVitto, hoping for a quick meeting and maybe a selfie with the star as well.

Several of the teens have taken the initiative to form a local SafeBAE club in South Kingstown. They said they’ve seen or heard of instances of sexual violence among teens locally.

They hope to share the resources that SafeBAE provides, such as awareness of sexual-violence prevention, consent education and Title IX knowledge. SafeBAE provides free resources to students and schools to encourage early education around consent, bystander intervention and healthy relationships at a time when teens are just starting to date.

“We definitely want to reach out to Curtis Corner and maybe Broad Rock, talk to the health classes,” sophomore Karmen Lambert said. The new group has about 10 members and has had a couple of meetings.

“Hopefully now, there will be more,” sophomore Gigi Goncalves said.

SafeBAE offers the youths training to certify them as peer educators. The students can apply the training to community service hours, Norris said.

“It’s all virtual, you can do it on your own time,” she said.

DeVitto appeared at the North Kingstown library on Wednesday to speak to teens there and visited several more schools Friday. The tour is sponsored through a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Health. Rhode Island is the first state to fund such a program.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights reports that in 2017-18, Rhode Island was the sixth-highest state in reports of incidents of sexual assaults among students in the United States.

“We work all over the country and focus on bringing free programming to students around sexual violence prevention and really changing the culture,” Norris said. “So they can hold each other accountable, learn about bystander intervention and consent, and build a foundation where they can be more cognitive thinkers about some of those actions.”

DeVitto said she’s attracted to the SafeBAE ethos of empowerment, and thinks the students are, too.

“You’re like, ‘Oh, I can spread this, I can talk about it. I’m empowered knowing my rights,’” she said. “That’s what makes it fun.”

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