Pace senior and sexual assault survivor inspires sex education reform

Kerry Mannix

SELDEN, N.Y. –  On June 24, 2020, Pace senior Julia Cancilla shared her story as a survivor of sexual assault via Twitter. This sparked a movement within the community surrounding Cancilla’s alma mater, Newfield High School. 

The mission involves reforming sex and consent education within that high school, high schools all over New York, and eventually, the nation.

According to Cancilla, not only was she met with, “an extraordinary amount of love and support,” but also with many other girls from Newfield sharing their own stories of assault by men from the school.

“It became overwhelmingly clear that something had to be done,” Cancilla said in an Instagram post.

Cristian Rodriguez, a Newfield alumnus and an intern for Chuck Schumer, contacted Cancilla, suggesting that she write a letter to the board of education and superintendent to investigate the health curriculum and sex education at the school.

Cancilla and Rodriguez worked together to write such a letter, and once complete they received over 260 cosigners.

“We demanded that they create a new curriculum that thoroughly teaches consent and is inclusive of all gender identities, sexual orientations, races, and cultures,” Cancilla said.

The board and superintendent agreed with everything said in the letter, and helped to form a Committee on Title IX.

Now that Cancilla has become so involved, she does plan to push even further; to expand this movement.

“The problem of inclusive consent and sex education…  is a problem in schools across the country. We need to take it step by step,” said Cancilla, “None of this is going to be easy, and I expect that it is going to take years and years. With the board of education and superintendent on our side, and Newfield as an example, we are preparing to team up with them to ensure change in curriculum is brought out across the state.”

Cancilla did not initially expect or plan for the movement to gain as much traction as it did, though.

“When I first posted the story, I honestly did not expect the post to get much attention at all. Actually, I’m not really even sure that I was considering the possibility of a reaction,” said Cancilla, “So when it got an enormous amount of attention and support, I was really thrown off guard, but so thankful for the platform.”

While she did receive a lot of support from her community and beyond, Cancilla says there was still backlash, as well as accusations of her lying, and that was difficult for her emotionally. She also found all the feedback she was getting – whether positive or negative – to be a lot for her.

“Especially in the beginning, I did feel extremely overwhelmed. I was getting messages from the press, calls from the high school principal, and personal messages from other students. I had to take on a lot of emotional labor. But luckily I have now learned to balance this movement with other parts of my life,” said Cancilla.

“To the people who have their own story, I hear you and I believe you. You are valid and you are worthy of love and respect. We will continue this fight until schools across the country are effectively teaching consent and sex education that is all-inclusive,” said Cancilla.