Months ago, JP Alves, a junior at the regional high school, wouldn’t have intervened when a track teammate said, “That race raped me.”

But when that happened recently, he did.

“Since it was just me and him there, I told him, I said, ‘This didn’t rape you.’”

This year, JP was nominated by faculty to be a member of a mostly male group of student leaders at the high school that calls themselves SWEAR, Stand With Everyone Against Rape.

On Friday morning, the group held an assembly for the entire junior class.

“Since SWEAR, I’ve sort of gotten more confidence to speak up when I see something I know isn’t right,” JP said.

SWEAR is about preventing sexual assault, but JP said it’s also about taking a critical look at masculinity. The group formed in 2016 as part of a senior project by Kaela Vecchia-Zeitz, who is now a student at New York University. She started volunteering with Connect to End Violence, the Island domestic violence and rape crisis intervention center, when she was a junior in high school.

Ian Trance takes a moment to share his thoughts during the meeting. — Maria Thibodeau

“I think MVRHS students—and students across the country—are wildly undereducated about rape, sexual assault, consent, and intervention,” Ms. Vecchia-Zeitz said in an email. “When I implemented SWEAR, it was in response to a general lack of knowledge about these issues, but also I knew how prevalent rape and sexual assault were in colleges across the United States.”

The program is based on a similar initiative at Dover Sherborn High School. Each year, faculty at the Martha’s Vineyard high school nominate young men in the junior class—and a few young women—to become student leaders.

“When it comes to rape and sexual assault, it’s definitely a conversation that is uncomfortable to us as teenagers,” said Matteus Scheffer, a senior who is captain of the lacrosse team. “But it happens so often, and it’s important to understand it’s very much a man’s problem.”

Earlier this month the SWEAR students participated in a two-day retreat at Alex’s Place at the YMCA, led by facilitators from Connect to End Violence, SWEAR seniors, and faculty advisors. The group learned how sexual violence proceeds from a culture of unhealthy relationships, much of it promoted by media and pornography. They also learned how to intervene to prevent sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

Junior Colin Henke said he was relieved to learn that other young men were uncomfortable with the way some boys talked about women and sex.

“It was nice to hear that I’m the not the only one who has seen that stuff and has felt that way, wanting to do something,” he said. “I think the majority of people, they know that this stuff is wrong. It’s just hard to stand up to your peers. It’s like the domino effect. If one person does it, then everybody will do it.”

School counselor Amy Lilavois said SWEAR is effective because the students have access to influence their classmates all year. They speak the language of their peers and understand where they are coming from.

“What we’ve found is if you have a powerful group of kids, they then own it, and they go out and they’re talking to their peers,” she said.

School counselor Matt Malowski talks about how his wife and daughters are his motivation for this work. — Maria Thibodeau

Matteus recalled a time he was asked to intervene after a freshman made a vulgar comment to a faculty member.

“In a work situation, it would have been sexual harassment,” he said. “I told him, you’re not going to be a kid forever, you’re becoming a young adult, and you can’t say these things.”

Earlier this year, some SWEAR students met with middle schoolers in Oak Bluffs to start the conversation about masculinity and consent even before kids enter high school.

“The last thing we want is for them to come into high school and portray this toxic masculinity that wouldn’t benefit the school environment whatsoever,” said JP.

SWEAR members also led group discussions at the high school to talk about consent and healthy relationships. A key part of SWEAR is understanding rape culture, the connection between small and large acts of sexual violence.

“Recognizing what rape culture is, and how do we get to the top of that pyramid of sexual assault and rape, it starts with those little jokes and nuances,” said Jennifer Neary, program director with Connect to End Violence. “Exposing these students in their 11th grade year to what all that means and how it all builds on each other, and it can start so small.”

Matt Malowski is also a school counselor who advises the SWEAR group. He emphasized the importance of understanding how small behaviors can have an impact.

“My takeaway is just for them to hear the subtleties about what women go through on a day to day basis, not the big stuff, just the real little innuendos and comments and fear for walking down Circuit avenue at 10 at night,” he said. “I hear them come out like, I had no idea.”

The group is designed to highlight male leadership and accountability around the issue, but a few girls are included to provide perspective. Jasselle Wildanger, 16, is one of them.

Survivor Jacqueline Reilly. — Maria Thibodeau

“I was a little nervous going in because it was five girls against 20 guys, and I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to be heard,” she said. “But they were so understanding, and I think the guys really understood the girls’ perspective.”

Matteus said it’s been eye-opening to hear the other side. “As a guy in the summer, I just tear around the Island all the time. I’m just walking around at night and hanging out, but I never feel unsafe,” he said. He said he’s become aware that for girls, even walking to their car at night can be scary.

But Connect facilitator Heather Arpin says they are teaching the young men to empower women, not speak for them.

“We talk about that cultured idea of a man comes in and takes over and that’s part of that toxic masculinity. How do we change that into more of an ally role,” she said.

Asked if she could change one thing about how boys behave in the high school, Jasselle said, “Probably the way they talk about girls all the time, and the way they see girls as an object rather than an actual person.”

Part of SWEAR is being committed to carrying on the message as these students enter college. JP said he was committed to changing things.

“I feel as if my generation should be informed about these kinds of things because they are realistic and they do happen,” said JP. “It’s important for us to get this information and to spread it in a positive way. They are difficult conversations, but I think they should be had.”