At this time of year, with students navigating new classrooms and the start of busy fall schedules, there’s always a buzz of excitement in the air. The new school year is upon us.
For adults, it’s the perfect time to ask ourselves, “Are there ways that we, as a community, can better protect our children at school?”
The answer is yes, there are ways to better protect our children —particularly when it comes to protecting them from sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse is prevalent in our society. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused or assaulted before they reach age 18. Nine out of 10 times, the abuser is someone the child or teenager knows and trusts — including teachers, coaches and other school employees.
As a society, what can we do to keep our children safe from sexual abuse? For starters, we can educate ourselves about the warning signs of sexual abuse and the steps we can take to prevent abuse. Many people aren’t aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse; most people aren’t comfortable talking about it. But that’s where we need to start. By engaging in conversation, we lift the taboo and initiate discussions that enhance child safety.
Adults can help keep children safe by learning to recognize other adults’ inappropriate behaviors, whether they’ve heard about them through their child (“Mom, I feel weird when Mr. So-and-So hugs me over and over”) or witnessed them themselves (“Why is the soccer coach tickling my daughter?”).
Sex offenders exist everywhere. Most don’t look or act like the stalkers depicted in movies or on television, and most aren’t listed on the sex offender registry websites. Instead, they’re seemingly upstanding citizens in our communities. They hold down jobs and often are friendly and gregarious. The smiling teacher. The friendly coach who’s quick with a hug. The family friend who is always ready and willing to babysit. As a society, we need to build a culture that embraces adults asking questions about things that set off our sixth sense and pursuing answers if we have concerns.
It’s important that adults ask questions and intervene when something doesn’t seem right. Many parents of sexually abused children say they thought something seemed odd but they couldn’t put their finger on exactly what was wrong. As adults, it is important for us to take responsibility for questioning other adults’ odd behavior rather than assuming the problem is with the child.
So what can each of us do as individuals? If you are uneasy about a situation or a person’s behavior, don’t shrug it off. Go with your gut reaction. Consider it a problem and respond accordingly. You’d be surprised how much that simple action can make a difference. Assess the safety of the situation, and then talk with the person in question or to the school guidance counselor or principal. Be sure to avoid accusatory language. Based on the results of the conversation, pursue the appropriate actions. If no actions are necessary, continue to monitor the situation and your child closely. If you suspect abuse, report it.
As the school year begins, let’s increase communication and community aware about sexual abuse issues and prevention techniques. Doing so will improve the safety of our community, our schools and our children.
Signs of potentially inappropriate behavior
An adult’s behavior with your child may be inappropriate if the adult:
Encourages hugging or physical contact, even if the child is uncomfortable.
Repeatedly asks to spend time with the child, such as a teacher asking the child to come to school early or stay late every day.
Creates excuses for spending inordinate amounts of time alone with the child outside the normal setting in which he or she would see the child.
Gives the child special gifts or sends overly attentive notes or electronic messages to the child on a regular basis.
Turns the child away from his or her family or encourages the child to keep secrets, which may prompt the child to make up stories or behave erratically to cover for the adult.
What to do if your child says an adult’s behavior bothers them
If a child tells you about someone who seems “creepy,” pay attention.
Believe the child and ask for more details.
Talk to the person in a non-accusatory way and explain that the behavior makes your child uncomfortable. Ask the person to stop the behavior.
In the school environment, if necessary, talk to the guidance counselor or principal.
If you see signs of changes in your child’s health, emotional well-being, school performance or interest in activities, consider the possibility that your child is being sexually abused.
If you suspect or know about sexual abuse, report it to the police or to CHILDLINE (1-800-932-0313). You can make the call anonymously.
If you aren’t sure what to do and would like to talk to a specifically trained sexual assault counselor, you can contact the HERO Hotline at 1-877-874-HERO (4376).
Behavior you may see if your child is being sexually abused
Changes in health, including headaches, stomach aches and extreme tiredness
Changes in eating habits and appetite
Personality changes such as low self-esteem, lose of interest in favorite activities, mood swings, fear, depression
Changes in school performance
Trouble sleeping or nightmares
Erratic behavior or talk of self harm
Gifts received or overly attentive cards and electronic messages from a new friend
Changes in body image
Unusual fear of being touched
Developmentally advanced language to describe sexual behaviors