Is Your Child Safe?

If you read the headlines, sexual child abuse is epidemic in the United States. Most people think that it will never happen to their child, but really ... how safe are your kids?

by Kimberlee Norris and Gregory Love

When Bob and Betty Smith — not their real names — chose a high-end school for their 11-year-old daughter Ella, they expected elite academics, a well-developed competitive sports program and well-educated, compassionate teachers. They didn’t expect Ella to be sexually abused by a school administrator.

“We were devastated — we couldn’t believe this could happen at our school — to our child,” says Betty. “I was extremely naïve about the possibility of mistreatment, much less sexual abuse. I am far better educated and vigilant now, but in some respects, the damage is already done.”

According to the Texas Penal Code, sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or visual and is any tricked, forced, manipulated or coerced sexual activity for the pleasure of the abuser. Sadly, schools public or private are not immune from the scourge of child sexual abuse. As parents, we carefully assess educational options for our children. How can we protect against this risk?

No Institution Is Immune

In the aftermath of the Penn State University scandal that made the name Jerry Sandusky a household phrase, the nation was again focused willingly or unwillingly on the widespread problem of child sexual abuse.

Other headlines quickly followed. The recent release of more than 15,000 pages of information detailing accusations of sexual abuse against 1,247 Boy Scouts of America leaders between 1965 and 1985, highly publicized stories of sex between teachers and students in schools and the continuing issue within the Roman Catholic Church only serve to heighten the issue.

In August, jurors in Fort Worth sentenced former Kennedale High School teacher Brittni Colleps to five years in prison for having sex with five of her students. The jury took less than an hour to find her guilty and less than three hours to agree on the punishment. The Texas Legislature has made sexual contact, sexual intercourse, or deviate sexual intercourse illegal and a second-degree felony regardless of the age of consent for workers in public or private primary or secondary schools.

Kanakuk Kamp is a Christian-based camp in Branson, Mo., popular with Fort Worth people. But in April of 2012, The Ozarks Sentinel reported the arrest of a 22-year-old man on charges of child molestation. The news report said it was the third time in three years that charges have been filed against former employees or volunteers connected to Kanakuk.

Studies are not clear on whether there is more sexual abuse of children now than in the past, but there certainly is more reporting of it since state legislatures across the nation have broadened the definition of mandatory reporters.

In Tulsa, Okla., five employees of Victory Christian Center were charged with failing to report child abuse after a 13-year-old girl told church officials in August of 2012 that she had been raped by a former employee. About two weeks lapsed before police were notified of the allegations, said a report in the Tulsa World.

Many Victims

Conservative studies indicate that one out of four girls and one out of seven boys will be sexually abused before reaching 18 years of age, regardless of their socio-economic demographic. Law enforcement sources estimate nearly 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse are living in America today; that’s nearly one fifth of a total population of 300 million.

Some parents send their children to private schools for the positive experience of academic excellence, personal growth and educational mentoring. Obviously, this positive experience is shattered if a child is abused at school. Sexual abuse should never happen at school, but schools, both public and private, continue to experience its devastating impact.

Unfortunately, the problem is growing.

Sexual abusers looking for access to children will gravitate to activities, organizations and schools where there are fewer protective measures in place. Some private schools have responded to this inevitable truth by implementing policies and training to reduce risk. Many schools have done little, failing to recognize the risks or laboring under the misconception that it won't happen here.

Standards of care related to entities with children's programming have risen dramatically in the past 10 years. Proactive schools have grown far more sophisticated in screening employees and volunteers, as well as implementing policies and procedures meant to protect children from abuse. These measures also protect staff members and volunteers from false allegations, while safeguarding students.
As public awareness and standards of care rise, sexual predators are looking for access to children in places where protections are few.

“Peer-to-peer” abuse — children abusing other children — has risen dramatically within the past decade. Criminal prosecutors report a nearly 300 percent increase in reports of peer-to-peer sexual abuse in the past seven years. Children often repeat behavior they have experienced or seen, so that even very young children may participate in sexual activity without understanding it. In one local private school, a 5-year-old boy fondled and sodomized a 4-year-old on the school playground and in the bathroom, while school staff members stood nearby, unaware.

Schools need protection. Sadly, many schools fail to proactively address this risk.

State Lawmakers Step In

Gov. Rick Perry with Jenna Quinn, a woman who was a victim of sexual abuse and became an activist to help others.

Because the problem of sexual abuse is growing, state legislatures are raising the bar. In Texas, for example, the “Youth Camp Act” became effective June 1, 2006. This act requires sexual abuse awareness training from an approved provider for all camp staff and volunteers, covering specific topics, with an examination over the material. The act's definition of “youth camp” includes any day camp, defined broadly so as to include every sports “day” camp in the state. Experts in child sexual abuse believed this act would prove to be the first wave of a legislative trend in Texas, with similar legislation following. They were right. 

In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed “Jenna’s Law,” calling for each public school district to adopt and implement policy aimed at preventing child sexual abuse by increasing teacher, student and parent awareness of sexual abuse. 

The law is named for Jenna Quinn who was a victim of sexual abuse herself and who became an activist in an effort to spare others what she endured. She lobbied Texas legislators about the need for schools to adopt age-appropriate curriculum on child sexual abuse. The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Tan Parker of Denton County, passed the Texas Senate unanimously.

In mid-June 2011, Gov. Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 471 into law, an expansion of “Jenna’s Law,” amending law related to public schools, charter schools, day care centers and child-placing agencies. SB471 amendments required child abuse and neglect training and policies in public schools and child care facilities. 

 

Private schools have the same risks now addressed by Texas law in the public school context, but public schools enjoy protection from civil litigation that private schools do not. The expanded law created a new “standard of care” for sexual abuse prevention in Texas schools, defining what is reasonable for organized educational activities in Texas. Because the same risks exist in private schools, private school behavior will be judged by the same legal standard of care laid out in Jenna’s Law and SB471.

Given these facts, what should a parent do?

As parents, it’s our responsibility to protect our children. When we entrust our children to a school, it remains our responsibility to diligently examine the safety of an activity, including school activities. Parents should not assume a school has adequately addressed the risk of child sexual abuse.

The single most important step a parent can take? Educate yourself to understand the problem. When parents understand the problem, they are better equipped to protect their children.

Misconceptions and False Sense of Security

What we believe shapes what we do (or fail to do). An adequate understanding of the risk of sexual abuse starts with setting aside common misconceptions:

“My school/neighborhood/community doesn’t have this problem. That happens somewhere ELSE.”

In reality, sexual abuse is not limited to any racial, ethnic or socio-economic class. It is no respecter of any educational or religious creed. Sexual abuse can happen anywhere.

“It’s not that big of a problem.”

There are 729,000 registered sex offenders living in the United States today, according to U.S. Department of Justice reports. This is more than one registered offender per square mile across the entire country. In our current cultural climate, no school should assume that child sexual abuse would not occur within its walls. Sexual abuse is a problem of epidemic proportion, as indicated by statistics cited earlier in this article. This isn’t a “Catholic problem” or an issue afflicting only poor or uneducated people; this is a problem affecting all of humanity.

“My school runs criminal background checks; isn’t that enough?”

Jenna speaks to groups about increasing awareness in order to prevent the sexual abuse of children.

Many parents see a criminal background check as a “silver bullet” — a computerized system sufficient to prevent sexual abuse, at least abuse perpetrated by school personnel. This is untrue. Criminal background checks alone will not protect students in school programs. Statistically, fewer than 10 percent of sexual offenders are ever criminally prosecuted, because 66 percent of child victims do not report abuse until adulthood, if ever. Many offenders are never caught or are allowed to simply leave a prior volunteer or staff position, rather than face prosecution for molesting a child. It happens, even in schools. As a result, more than 90 percent of offenders have no criminal record to check.

A criminal background check simply reveals whether a person has tangled with the criminal justice system; it does not vouch for or verify whether a person is safe, trustworthy, or appropriate to work with children.

Some schools have begun to screen applicants using state database resources meant to reveal criminal convictions. Unfortunately, computerized database searches are searching only a fraction of available criminal records, as many state databases are incomplete, and the majority of services check only the current county of an applicant's residence.

Because fewer than 10 percent of sexual abusers will ever encounter the criminal justice system, the majority of sexual abusers have no criminal record to find — and they know it. Even if a school employs a criminal background check system that effectively locates every brush with the law, more than 90 percent of sexual abusers will remain unidentified.

“I would recognize a sexual abuser if I saw one — or rely on my iPhone app.”

Most abusers have no record to check, and there is no visual profile for a sexual abuser; most look just like the rest of us. Most are (or have been) married; many have children, jobs, homes and a higher education.

“Most children are victimized by someone they don’t know.”

Teaching children about “stranger danger” doesn’t solve the problem, because 90 percent of victims are abused by someone they know and trust. Fewer than 10 percent of sexual abuse involves strangers or a snatched child.

The Grooming Process

The “grooming process” is the method by which an abuser picks and prepares a child for sexual abuse. Sexual molesters “groom” children and “gatekeepers” prior to the occurrence of sexual behavior. If you are a parent or caregiver, you are a “gatekeeper” — someone standing between the molester and a child victim.

Preferential abusers, those who actually prefer a child as a sexual partner, will expend extraordinary effort to appear helpful, trustworthy and responsible. The goal? Trusted time alone with your child.

Parents, school employees and volunteers must understand and recognize the grooming process if children are to be protected from sexual abuse.

The Grooming Process
Grooming is a subtle but escalating process of building trust with a child, usually beginning with behaviors that do not seem to be inappropriate. Abusers sometimes groom children for weeks, months or even years before there is any actual abuse. Here are some guidelines for recognizing the process:
Gaining Access
  • Career or volunteer opportunities related to children.
  • Gaining the trust of the child’s caregivers/gatekeepers.
  • Creating an appearance that the molester is helpful, kind and trustworthy.
  • Skilled at meeting a child’s needs (time/attention/clothing/gifts).
Selecting the Child
  • A child who is on the “fringe” or in need.
  • A child looking for someone to follow or trust.
  • A child from a broken family or single parent home.
  • A child already involved in alcohol or drugs.
  • A child already interested in pornography and sex (generally male).
Introducing Nudity and Sexual Touch
  • Barrier testing and erosion — breaking down existing resistance to sense of personal space, touch or nudity (full or partial).
  • Sexual discussions and joking — eroding sensitivity to sexual topics.
  • Playful touch and “accidental nudity” — wrestling, wedgies, dropped towels, popping towels in shower, etc.
  • Providing access to magazines and movies depicting nudity and sex (generally male victims where pornography is utilized).
Keeping the Victim Silent
  • Secrecy: “This must be a secret between you and me.”
  • Shame and embarrassment: “You participated; you’ll get in trouble, too.”
  • Threats (direct or subtle): “No one will believe you;” “This would hurt your mother;” “I think you liked it;” “This would wreck our school.”
Common grooming behaviors include gift giving, involvement in “kid magnet” activities such as video games and similar activities; seeking repeated time alone with the same child; being touchy with children and pushing boundaries; breaking the rules such as pornography, tobacco use and beer; justifying and rationalizing rule-breaking; and playful but inappropriate touching.

An Effective School Safety System

An effective safety system for schools should include the following components. Each of these components is valuable as an element of an effective safety system but cannot create a safe environment standing alone.

The components are: sexual abuse awareness training (for staff members and volunteers); an effective screening process; an appropriate criminal background check system; tailored policies and procedures; and effective monitoring, supervision and oversight.

Sexual Abuse Awareness Training: The introduction of any change in school programs may meet resistance from those asked to comply — especially changes that place new responsibilities on already overloaded teachers. If staff members and volunteers are first trained, new policies make sense, and many emotional barriers to change are replaced by a desire to be part of a system that protects children.

Effective Screening Processes: Together with appropriate criminal background checks, effective screening can encourage a sexual predator to self-select out of school employee or volunteer pools. Effective screening measures deter or prevent a molester from having access to children through school programs. Put differently, criminal background checks and effective screening are measures designed to “keep the wolf out of the sheep pen.”

An applicant with inappropriate sexual motives carries with him or her various indicators and life patterns that help identify him or her as one who may not be appropriate for work with children or students. Every school’s hiring personnel should be well versed in these indicators.

Effective screening requires training of intake coordinators and interviewers, providing them with information and tools to recognize high-risk responses on applications, reference forms or during an interview. Risk indicators might disqualify an applicant for service or employment, or simply instigate follow-up questions to rule out risk. This training allows hiring personnel to assess whether a prospective employee or volunteer is high-risk for children's programming.

Appropriate Criminal Background Checks: A background check, coupled with effective screening, can be critical in preventing an abuser from gaining access to children through school work or volunteerism. For each staff member or volunteer, the depth of a criminal background check should be determined by the extent of direct contact with children and degree of authority within a school activity or program. For a higher-level employee, or a volunteer or staff member with extensive contact with children or students, a more comprehensive criminal background check may be advisable. A comprehensive check may include an actual county-by-county record search.

If you — as a parent — ask your school, “What do you do to protect students from the risk of sexual abuse?” and the answer is “We do criminal background checks” and that’s it, walk away, or agitate for change. A criminal background check alone is woefully insufficient protection from abuse.

Tailored Policies and Procedures: Every school should operate within carefully tailored policies and procedures that balance its academic goals with the risks inherent in children's programming. For every program or activity, inherent risks must be evaluated and addressed in policies and procedures that reduce the likelihood of harm to children. At the same time, policy manuals can't look like War and Peace. Policies and procedures cobbled together from various sources are rarely effective, because patchwork policies are seldom tailored to a school's activities, physical facilities and specific programming risks.

Monitoring and Oversight: Effective monitoring and oversight is imperative to the success of any safety system. Checks and balances include monitoring for adequate supervision of activities and programs, unscheduled drop-ins on programming, and performance reviews that include safety system compliance.

Every school — public or private — has a vested interest in proactively working to protect children in its care. Schools that are serious about addressing the risk of sexual abuse will screen effectively, create policies and procedures designed to prevent abuse and train all staff members and volunteers to recognize and report grooming behaviors, while skillfully monitoring the behavior of staff members, volunteers and students.

Where these practices are diligently pursued, parents can feel confident that their children are reasonably safe from sexual abuse at school.