Erin Michele Levitas once said, “I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up.’”
Those closest to Erin, a Stevenson resident who died in January of 2016 just a month shy of her 23rd birthday, say she would be proud to know her name is attached to a new program to help sexual assault survivors.
“I think the work of the initiative will show Erin’s strength,” Wende A. Levitas says of her daughter, a victim of sexual assault. “She was incredibly strong, despite her experiences with rape and illness, and chose to use her perspective to bond with others who had similar experiences.”
The Erin Levitas Initiative for Sexual Assault Prevention will train students from the Gender Violence and Mediation Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law on how to implement a new sexual assault prevention program in Baltimore City middle schools.
Using a communication model called Restorative Justice Circles, facilitators will conduct discussions with the students about healthy boundaries, gender relations and consent. The program is designed to prevent sexual assaults by addressing lower-level offenses and informing the attitudes that can lead to sexual violence.
“When an incident happens at school, it often is addressed only between the two students involved and sometimes only with the offending student,” says Dr. C. Quince Hopkins, the initiative’s director. “The Restorative Circle involves everyone related to the event, including bystanders, and offers students more response options. By the time young people reach high school, more serious sexual offending begins, so changing beliefs and behavioral pattern at this stage is important.”
This initiative is supported by the Pikesville-based Erin Levitas Foundation. In 2015, Erin was completing her final semester at Wake Forest University, with plans to attend the Carey Law School and pursue a career as an advocate for sexual assault survivors. But she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma and eventually had to withdraw from law school.
After her passing, Erin’s family established the foundation, dedicated to educating youth and young adults about sexual assault while helping victims.
While Erin was ailing, what kept her awake at night was not her physical pain as much as the memory of her rape, says Marissa Neuman Jachman, Erin’s cousin and executive director of the foundation. “If that stops someone who is so sick, how does that affect someone sitting in the classroom?” Jachman said.
Since launching the foundation, Jachman and Wende Levitas say they have heard from people who have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, sexual assault. They say the foundation is providing an opportunity for survivors to talk about their experiences while playing a proactive role in promoting change.
“It’s amazing how much goes unreported, and I think this will help to create strength within our community, letting people know they are not alone,” says Wende Levitas, the foundation’s president.
The initiative will also help students perform better academically, says Barbara Sugarman Grochal, director of the School’s Conflict Resolution Education Program at the Carey Law School’s Center for Dispute Resolution.
“Restorative circles focus on restoring relationships and improving the social-emotional climate at school, which in turn leads to better academic success,” Grochal says. “Students can explore their own beliefs and listen to others, instead of relying solely on a responsive cycle of punishment and suspension from the school, which can leave them vulnerable to future offenses.”
Hopkins and Grochal are currently working with a group of educators, health experts and sexual violence advocates organized by the Maryland State Department of Education to craft a curriculum that meets the highest legal and clinical standards. Next spring, the initiative will launch a pre-pilot program, which will inform a more sustainable full pilot program next fall.
Hopkins and Grochal plan for the program to be replicated nationally in partnership with other law schools.
For Grochal, this work is a fitting tribute to Erin’s vision. “This is a wonderful partnership between the law school and the foundation, and a fantastic memorial to Erin and her passion for justice around the issue of sexual violence,” she says. “We’re going to take this dream of hers and make it happen.”
Hanni R. Werner is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.