A highly-regarded second grade teacher was arrested in Clovis, California, for allegedly abusing one of his students by keeping her in the classroom, blindfolding her, and having her play a “lollipop” game. The sad news is that this teacher allegedly abused the innocence and trust in this destructive way of at least one and possibly more children. The good news is that the abuse was caught and stopped because this girl’s courageous mother noticed that her daughter was not outside during physical education, asked questions, and took action. The teacher is now in jail as the investigation continues.
Understandably, parents and educators at the school were horrified and frightened that a child could be abused during the school day with so many people nearby. They were left wondering who to trust, what to tell their children, and how to keep their kids safe from anything like this happening ever again.
Finding answers to these questions without traumatizing children is challenging. Most of the people who molest children are people they know, but making them fearful about adults who are supposed to take care of them is likely to make them anxious without making them safer.
Instead, Kidpower recommends these seven actions to parents, teachers, and other caring adults for protecting kids from sexual predators and for what to do if a teacher is accused of abuse at your school:
1. Pay attention to what is happening with your child, all the time, everywhere, with everyone. Don’t assume that someone is safe just because of his or her position. Do what this mother did to notice if your child is being alone with an adult instead of with the other children and to find out what’s going on. Ask your child occasionally, “Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?” Listen to the answers, even if they seem silly to you or you think the child did something wrong, without lecturing, joking, or getting upset. Remember that we want children to feel safe talking to us about what is happening in their lives.
2. Act calmly and in a matter-of-fact way, no matter how you feel inside. Children learn much better when their adults are calm. Try not to put scary ideas in children’s minds that don’t need to be there. Be aware of children overhearing you talking to other adults even if they don’t seem to be paying attention.
3. Teach children that touch, teasing, games, and treats should NEVER be a secret and the Kidpower safety rules about Touch in Healthy Relationships, including the rules about private areas. Teach children to let you know right away if they are spending special time or alone time with their teacher or anyone else who is supervising them away from other children. One-on-one time with an adult can be very important to a child’s healthy development, but it should not be a secret. Practice with kids saying out loud in cheerful, strong voices: “I don’t keep touch a secret. I don’t keep games a secret. I don’t keep problems a secret.”
4. Avoid giving children explicit details of how someone might abuse them. Instead, tell children: “Sometimes the People Kids Love Have Problems and do things to hurt children or make them uncomfortable. If this happens to you or someone you know, it does not mean that anyone is bad, but it does mean that everyone needs help and the way to get help is to tell grownups you trust and to keep telling until someone does something about it. And it is never too late to tell.”
5. Teach children how to set boundaries, even with adults that they normally would obey. Yes, we want children to respect their teachers and other adults in position of authority, but we also want them to be able to speak up if this person is breaking the safety rules. You can practice this with non-sexual touch or games, because touch or games for affection or fun should be a child’s choice. Give kids practice in saying, “Stop or I’ll tell!” to a teacher who is keeping them in at recess and wants to hold hands. And, saying “I don’t keep touch or games a secret.” to a grownup who is telling them not to tell their parents about a game.
6. If abuse has happened at your school, talk to kids who have heard about what happened in a matter-of-fact age-appropriate way that reassures them, answers their questions, and does not give them more information than they need. Be careful of sounding as if this child’s life is ruined or as if she did anything wrong, because fear of being seen as bad and feeling ashamed might prevent a child from seeking help. Keep explanations simple: “The teacher broke the safety rules and the student’s mother found out and stopped him. The student was brave in telling her mom what happened and she is going to be all right.”
7. Realize that students of a teacher who is accused of abuse might be grieving and shocked that their teacher would do anything bad and worried about what this means for them. Seek counseling and professional help if you need it for yourself or if your child continues to be distressed.
For more information about protecting kids from abuse, see Kidpower’s Child Abuse Prevention Resource Page.
— Irene van der Zande is the Executive Director and Founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International and author of the Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, which has extensive information on protecting children from abuse, bullying, kidnapping, and other violence. This book has a foreword by Gavin de Becker, best-selling author of The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift and puts Kidpower’s 23+ years of expertise at your fingertips. Her book, Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe is used by many families, schools, and youth organizations for their own anti-bullying programs.
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