Conversation Starters

Conversation Starters

By Catherine Buni

What happens when a small group of public school staff and parents start talking about preventing sex abuse?

Art Conversation StartersMelody Dillard is a parent who lives outside Hanover, New Hampshire. As a child, she attended Bernice A. Ray Elementary School in her town. Her child goes there now. Dillard is happy about this. “It was a place I could feel relief,” she said.

When she herself was in second grade, Dillard colored a crayon picture of a basement and several terrified children. “I know I was trying to tell someone I was being sexually abused,” she told me. “I always felt safe at the Ray School.” But no one ever asked her about the darkness she’d drawn. Thirty years ago, she said, no one talked about children’s sexual health and safety. Not even at the Ray School.

Susanna Carls teaches at the Ray School now, and, in late 2010, she sat in the office of Ray School counselor Pam Graham. Graham had convened a meeting with the K-1 teachers to review the year’s social emotional learning curriculum. The day was bright, but as Carls listened, she thought about students who, she felt, might be at risk, because of domestic violence, cultural resistance, economic hardship. She imagined children sitting in class in the aftermath of sexual assault, as she once had. She thought about the children’s fathers and mothers, what they might, or might not, be willing or able to notice or question, say or hide.

Carls (who has two children and asked that her real name not be used) had been a quiet, reliable student when she was a girl. She’d had several close friends, but they never talked about their bodies, their sexual health or safety. Nobody did, she told me. She used to pray at night.

Once, sitting next to her mother in the car, she’d said her prayer out loud.

“Please just divorce him.”

“I’m working on it,” her mother had said. First, she’d told her daughter, she needed to save more money.

“I could give you a reason,” Carls said, then held her breath. She felt sure her mother knew that something, something she didn’t know how to say herself, was wrong. But they rode on in silence, and for years her prayers went unanswered.

Where was her stepfather now? Carls had no idea. By the time she’d been able to grasp the crimes he’d committed against her, it was too late to press charges.

Now, listening to Pam Graham, her words full of care and purpose, Carls felt agitated. Is it ever a good time to press charges? One of Carls’ classroom parents was in the throes of a trial herself. During a recent parent-teacher conference, Melody Dillard (who also asked that a pseudonym be used to protect her family) had told Carls about the searing experience of testifying against her childhood abuser, about the relief of publicly stating the truth, about the heartfelt expressions of gratitude from some parents, but, from others, rejection and even rage. Carls felt suddenly clear. “I don’t know why we’re not dealing with sexual abuse,” she blurted. “Sexual abuse is part of my history, and I don’t want it to be part of other people’s histories.”

Graham listened carefully. In fact, only months before, she’d been trained as a crisis-line volunteer for the region’s domestic and sexual violence advocacy center, called WISE. On one of her first calls, she had found herself in the local ER, at 3:30 a.m., with a teenage girl who’d just been raped. When Graham arrived, the nurse had shrugged. “She’s in the shower,” she’d said. How could an ER nurse not know a rape victim should not shower until after the exam? Graham had asked herself in disbelief. How can we still know so little?

“Keeping it a secret didn’t work,” Susanna Carls was saying to her now. “I had hinted a lot, wishing someone would point blank ask me. I’d hoped someone else would bring it up. It took more than twenty years to get healthy again. Maybe it could’ve been only two.”

Maybe it could never have happened at all.

*     *     *     *     *

Reports of child sexual abuse have dropped 58 percent in the last two decades, says the field’s leading researcher, David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. More education, media exposure, and awareness, better law enforcement, better offender treatment and victim support, better psycho-pharmaceuticals, all have led to better guardianship. But even with the progress made, the numbers are still staggering. Estimates vary, depending on the source. According to Finkelhor’s 2011 research, some one in five girls (down from an estimated one in four) and one in twenty boys (down from an estimated one in six) will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Of the children abused by adults, some 40 percent will be under the age of six.

As I’ve seen at the Ray School, as we see in every community, regardless of location, ethnicity, class, or religion, it is statistically likely that every one of us is connected to people—colleagues, friends, and neighbors—who’ve experienced child sexual abuse, whether we hear about it or not. Of every 100 incidents of child sexual abuse, it is estimated that only 10 to 18 are reported to authorities.”How can we think of ourselves as having success,” asked Finkelhor in October, during a symposium hosted by the Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children titled “From Research to Practice: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse,” “when somebody can be molesting so many kids for such a long period, with so many people you would think would have done a good job outing him and didn’t?” The somebody he was referring to was Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, who for at least fifteen years had groomed and assaulted children on campus under the cover of his colleagues’ silence.

A tipping point? Fueled by outrage, grief, and awareness, but also by threats of insurance loss and lawsuits–$60 million, Penn State’s penalty; 30 to 60 years, Sandusky’s sentence—individuals at youth-serving institutions across the country are flight-testing an emerging array of policies and programs that might help.

The country’s first sustained sexual violence prevention program is reported to have been introduced in 1976, after a nun from a Columbus, Ohio, parochial school learned that one of her second-graders had been raped. “She called a local agency, Women Against Rape, and asked for help, and, soon after, the Child Assault Prevention Project was born, built on the ground-breaking recognition that women and children share the same cultural status, a cultural status that supports epidemic levels of sexual violence against them, young and old alike.”

Nobody can say for sure how many schools and youth-serving institutions have introduced sexual violence prevention programming since, but we know the number is growing.

Some implement proactively, the Ray School, for instance, or the Unitarian Universalist Association, an early pioneer in both policy and programming, perhaps best known for its Our Whole Lives curriculum. Others implement in response to crisis—Boston’s Catholic schools, for one, which adopted Committee for Children’s Talking about Touching, a pre-K-3 program taught in 25,000 schools nationwide, after revelations of widespread abuse there. Some are introducing prevention because of state law, as is the case in Vermont, where 2009 legislation, called Act One, mandates all schools to implement sexual violence prevention as part of comprehensive health education, a national first. In some schools, of course, the topic remains taboo. In some schools, post-trauma crisis is the norm, immediate needs so great that looking upstream to prevention could be called a luxury.

Ideally, says Bridgid Normand, Committee for Children’s Program Development Manager, current research-based models are implemented systematically, and include policies and procedures for a safe school environment, training for all staff, parent engagement and education, and a child-focused curriculum. In reality, implementation is as varied as the educators themselves, their states and workplaces, politics and religion, with too many schools still relying on programs that focus on teaching children to protect themselves, perpetuating the notion that victims are somehow responsible for being assaulted. This, despite our newfound awareness of how effectively the grooming process silences children, and the obvious but recent shift towards the understanding that adults, not children, are responsible for keeping children safe.

Normand, along with Finkelhor, is quick to note that even the best prevention programming is still only one piece of a complicated puzzle. As the CDC frames prevention, from HIV/AIDS to obesity, all four pieces of what’s called the social-ecological model for change—Societal, Community, Relationship, and Individual—must be on the table to sustain long-term cultural change.

But while change in schools and other institutions that care for children is just one piece of the puzzle, it is an important one; some 55 million children go to school in the United States every day. The parent-educator connection is a powerful force—most educators are parents too—one that can be engaged with questions as simple as: What are your child safety policies and hiring practices? Do you offer training and instruction?

But what specific programs should schools implement? There is no clearinghouse of current best-practice curricula, says Carol Shakeshaft, Ph.D., a professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who is developing an online training program focused on prevention of sexual abuse of students (1 in 10 students report being sexually victimized by school employees, she says, predominantly teachers and coaches). Different programs work for different communities, Shakeshaft says, depending on staffing, culture, and resources. Though some state departments of education track options and make recommendations, at this stage, she says, programs are often discovered by word of mouth, many times after calls to the experts—Deborah Donovan Rice, Executive Director of Stop It Now!, for instance. When their Helpline receives an inquiry about what a school can do in the younger grades, she says, they recommend Care for Kids, a pre-K-2 program developed in Canada now taught in 13 U.S. states. When Pam Graham from the Ray School called WISE in late 2010 and asked for help, it was Care for Kids that Kate Rohdenburg, WISE’s Program Manager, recommended too.

*     *     *     *     *

Two months later, on a rainy March evening in 2011, Rohdenburg stood at the front of the Ray School auditorium. She’d wrapped a cloud-gray scarf around her shoulders, and, hands clasped behind her back, waited for the mothers and fathers to settle in. Susanna Carls sat on the sidelines with Pam Graham, several other staff, and the school’s principal, Matt Laramie, a parent of three who’d supported Graham’s call to WISE for counsel.

“How do we prevent sexual violence?” Rohdenburg, 26, began, after a brief introduction.

She scanned for hands. More than seventy percent of the Ray School’s mothers and fathers held advanced degrees. They worked nearby at Dartmouth College, at the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. More than fifty mothers and fathers had turned out, but none raised a hand.

“Well,” Rohdenburg said, “how do we promote healthy relationships?”

More silence. “With Care for Kids,” Rohdenburg continued, “we’re trying to teach young kids and the adults who take care of them communication, empathy and reinforce protective skills, to recognize and reinforce positive interactions. Talking about healthy sexuality is an ongoing conversation, sort of like sneaking in veggies—by the time they’re teenagers they don’t want to talk to you anymore, but, if you start now, you’ll have already gotten all the good stuff in them.”

The parents laughed. A good break. Another good start.

*     *     *     *     *

“Care for Kids is about life skills, not sex,” Rohdenburg is careful to say early in her Care for Kids parent presentations, a foundational piece of the program, in addition to weekly parent take-home and exercises once classes begin. Rohdenburg does not teach what we call sex ed—not the definition of intercourse, not techniques of contraception, not protections against STDs—a critical fact of her funding, which is earmarked for prevention. She does not speak about bad touches or bad people.

Care for Kids teaches kids the language and skills of empathy and consent, in age-appropriate ways and over time, says Linda Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, from her office in Montpelier, the national training and distribution center for Care for Kids, where Rohdenburg herself was trained. These are skills necessary for any healthy relationship, skills demonstrated to prevent offending behaviors.

Care for Kids also teaches teachers and parents how to look for signs and symptoms, how to address children’s questions and responses, and how to teach children healthy, empathic interpersonal behaviors. But, says Johnson, for adults to master these skills, they must first acknowledge and address their own discomfort that feeds the silence that covers for child sexual violence.

And so, Rohdenburg said to the Ray School parents next, “I want you to think about the first messages you ever got about sexuality.”

At first the room was quiet. But then, slowly, the parents started to whisper and laugh, lift up spectacles and wipe their eyes.

“Who wants to share?” Rohdenburg asked.

A woman threw up a hand. “I was walking home from junior high school,” she said, ” and a guy in a car pulls up next to me and asks if I can give him a—blow job.”

There was a burst of laughter.

“For $50, he said. I thought he wanted his car washed. I said, ‘No thanks,’ but he kept asking if I’d give him a blow job. He finally drove away. It took me a week to figure it out. I talked to a friend…I would have never talked to my mother.”

“I remember Playboy was around the house like the New Yorker,” a man said. “There was never any acknowledgement of it…we all just silently took it in. Nobody ever talked about sex, and it was just lying around everywhere.”

“And we’ve got the Internet now,” said Rohdenburg.

“When I was a kid,” another woman jumped in, “my parents talked to me about stranger-danger…But it’s not a stranger, it’s a teacher or a coach.”

“And we talk to strangers all the time!” said Rohdenburg, “so we’re not modeling that behavior for our kids. It’s confusing.”

*     *     *     *     *

It is confusing. Why do so many seemingly normal people sexually assault children? The research suggests that there is no one reason why sex offenders abuse. Media focus on creepy predators lurking in locker room showers or on the Internet, but they are the exception. One study indicates 34 percent of offenders are family members, 59 percent acquaintances. Upward of 94 percent are male, with 30 to 50 percent still children or adolescents themselves. “Not all people who abuse are the same and not all of the reasons they abuse are the same,” says Joan Tabachnick, a national consultant on offender treatment. “Some people are sexually attracted to young children. Some abuse because they have access to children and are drinking, depressed, jealous or just need comfort. Some are developmentally delayed and don’t understand the implications of what they do. Some are psychopaths. Some have grown up in a culture where the signs of sexual abuse are ignored and somehow justify to themselves that it is okay.” What we do know, says Tabachnick, is that the cost of child sexual abuse is huge, both socially and economically. We know that when an organization or a community creates a culture where sexual abuse is talked about and not tolerated, where inappropriate behaviors are discussed and addressed through organizational policies, and adults are educated about healthy sexual development—people are less likely to offend. Some may even get help. Some, of course, simply move on to places where silence is still the norm.

Despite prevention’s complicated, unfolding terrain, Rohdenburg is confident, hopeful even. She says she believes a culture that rejects violence against children and women is possible. But every so often, she lets slip a burst of exasperation. “When eighteen American boys and men rape an 11-year-old girl in Texas, we talk about what clothes she wore?” she’ll say. “That the 18 men who raped the 11-year-old-girl will have to ‘live with this the rest of their lives?” And what was it Penn State’s Joe Paterno said on his way out? Oh, yes. “The kids that were victims of whatever they want to say, I think we all ought to say a prayer for them.'”

“Say a prayer?” Rohdenburg highpitches. “Freakin’ do something.”

Mostly, Rohdenburg asks a lot of good questions. Her favorite, and I’ve found you can ask it of anybody, anywhere, is “Does that make sense?”

*     *     *     *     *

Rohdenburg checked her watch. It was getting late. She opened the floor to questions. “What if a child falsely reports?” (False reports are rare, though the question is important, because we must keep adults safe as well as children.) “What, exactly, will you teach?” (Six lessons: Bodies; Babies; Feelings; Bedtime; Touching; Secrets and Surprises.) “Is there a version for Catholic schools?” (Yes.) For almost an hour, Rohdenburg and Graham fielded questions. And then someone asked, “How do we know it works?”

The parents waited for an answer, an answer even the experts are still tracking. As Finkelhor puts it, researchers are working in an environment of “evidentiary chaos.” The adult responsibility focused programs being adopted across the country are, however, showing evidence of strengthening protective factors and decreasing the likelihood of child sexual abuse. They are improving hiring practices and reporting, parent-child communication, social and emotional competence, and resilience for both parents and children. Research is showing increased sense of personal efficacy for kids, more positive body image and attitude, and, for those who’ve been abused, a decrease in self-blame. “Knowing that recent improvements have come while we’ve had school based programs in place,” Finkelhor says, “it makes good sense to continue using and improving them.”

But the parent asked again, “How do we know it works?”

Off to one side, Susanna Carls stood up. For a moment, she said nothing, just stood there in the silence, the color in her cheeks rising. “To me,” she finally said, “if there are kids who are helped, great.” The parent made no response. “Teachers will be present for all of this,” Carls continued. “If there’s a child who’s uncomfortable, we’ll call the parent. . .” she paused, and, for a moment, Carls and the parent simply looked at one another. That’s when she said, “I was sexually abused as a girl. I didn’t say anything for years. I wish I’d been given a voice. I wish someone would have talked about it.” She sat down, and the room filled with quiet words of wonder and realization and sympathy. Thank you and Oh and I’m sorry.

After Rohdenburg’s presentation, the parents lingered. They lined up and asked more questions. And then, tucking away their handouts—about healthy relationships, who to call with questions or concerns—the parents headed home.

A month later, in April, Rohdenburg returned to the Ray School. Of eighty families, three had opted out of the program. Two families cited religious reasons, Graham said, and one parent created her own prevention curriculum, which Graham admired—families are, after all children’s most important teachers. In the perfect world, every kid would come home every day to a CDC-ideal “safe, stable, and nurturing environment,” to a parent or two who understands healthy sexuality and is not afraid to talk about it.

From what I saw during Rohdenburg’s “Touching” classes in May, kids really like Rohdenburg. Rohdenburg really likes kids. She is not afraid of the prospect of their mutiny. More important, she is not frightened by the fact of their sexuality.

“Hi, everyone!” she said, opening one class, “Do you remember me?”

“Yes!” Seventeen children yelled happily back, a strong signal of the connection and comfort needed to effectively teach the Care for Kids’ content.

“Last week,” said Rohdenburg, “we gave a baby a bath!” Her scarf was sparkly this day, the colors of a peacock feather.

“Do you have the dolls today?!” a child asked excitedly.

The kids had clearly loved giving “baths” to their plastic baby dolls, one boy, one girl, one beige, one brown, during their “Babies” class—Babies need help with most things and deserve to be looked after. Children, as they grown, learn to do more things by themselves, but they still need some help.

For a minute or two, Rohdenburg named body parts, and kids called back. “Public!” “Private!” “Public!” “Private!” Elbow, penis, shoulder, buttocks, nose, vagina. They’d learned the Bodies’ lesson two weeks before—Our bodies are good and special and deserve care and respect (including our private parts). Boys and girls have many parts that are the same and some that are different.

A child shouted. “We need a special soap! If it gets in your eyes it doesn’t hurt!”

“Once a spicy noodle went in my eye!” called out another, wiping his face and sticking a dirty finger in his mouth.

Rohdenburg crinkled her nose. “Owwww,” she said. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

The kindergarteners and first graders of the Ray School’s K-1 classes spoke boisterously and often and out of turn. They jumped up during circle time, skipped to the recycling bin without asking. Rohdenburg listened and let them roam.

On occasion, a teacher strode into Rohdenburg’s circle. “They’re not usually like this,” one said. “They’re excited to have a guest speaker,” explained another. In one of the four “Touching” classes I observed—Sometimes we like touching and sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. Any person can say “no” to touching. Don’t touch a person who says “No touching.”—one teacher turned the classroom over to Rohdenburg entirely, allowing the children what Rohdenburg calls “agency.”

In every class, Rohdenburg handed each child a colorful strip of construction paper, a yard long. Each child traced his or her hand, cut out the tracings, and then stapled one raggedy-edged cutout hand to each end of the paper strip. When asked, they flew from their tables, paper arms flapping, and formed a circle. They took turns asking a classmate if a paper hug or handshake or high five would be okay. “Can I hug you?” they asked, their age-appropriate lesson in consent. “Is it okay if I hug you?”

It’s not proof, it’s not evidence, but it was hard not to notice that in the one classroom where complete freedom of expression, or “agency,” was allowed by adults, most of the children, when asked by a classmate if they could be “hugged” said, “No.” They opted for a high-five or a handshake instead. In the classrooms where adults exercised control over the children’s speech and bodies—”1, 2, 3, eyes on me!” “Raise your hand!” “Sit down!”—all but a few children answered the question “Can I hug you?” with a quiet “Yes.” How young we are taught to meet expectation. What expectations, then, to teach?

*     *     *     *     *

I return a year later, in spring 2012, and watch Graham teach the class called “Feelings”—Everyone has all kinds of feelings. When you are not sure what you are feeling, we called that “mixed up” or “confused.”—and another called “Secrets and Surprises”—Sometimes we want to keep a secret, sometimes we don’t. Touching is never a secret. When you are sad or confused because someone asked you to keep a secret, you can ask two or three grownups for help. Graham tells me afterward, “I do my best to let the children express themselves fully.” There’s more to do, she says. She’s using the school resource guide that accompanies Vermont’s Act One to guide her. They want to integrate programming in older grades. Introduce more staff training. Better parent training, perhaps in smaller groups for comfort. Were there staff or parents who sought help from WISE or Stop It Now! or another resource? Were some children spared abuse because the culture of the Ray School community was changing? She doesn’t know. She says that since the Ray School has begun integrating sexual violence prevention, other colleagues have shared stories of their own survival of sexual abuse as children. Two kindergarteners have made disclosures to their mothers, both of whom called Graham, a mother herself, so they could work together.

Says Matt Laramie, the Ray School’s Principal, “When you see the cycle broken, this early, it’s joyful.” Says Melody Dillard, the parent who’d sat in the Ray School’s classrooms a generation ago, waiting for someone to speak. “This is how things are supposed to be.”

About the Author: Catherine Buni writes about the environment, education, and health – and the wild places where they meet – from her home office in central Vermont. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside Magazine’s Family Adventure Guide, and WorldHum, among others. Read more of Catherine’s work at

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