Teaching Kids About Sexual Assault

At increasingly young ages, programs aim to teach children about healthy relationships and create places where parents, teachers, and children feel they can speak up about abuse. The message cannot obscure the fact that adults, not children, are responsible for keeping children safe.

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

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 says. “I always felt safe at the Ray School.” But no one ever asked her about the darkness she’d drawn. Thirty years ago, she says, no one talked about children’s sexual health and safety.

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. 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 see or ask about.

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 close friends, but they never talked about their bodies, their sexual health, or safety. Nobody did, she said. 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 needed to save more money.

“I could give you a reason.” Carls felt certain 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 understand the crimes he’d committed against her, it was too late to press charges.

Now, here at the Ray School, listening to Pam Graham, Carls felt unsettled. 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 heartfelt expressions of gratitude from some parents, the rejection and even rage from others.

“I don’t know why we’re not dealing with sexual abuse,” Carls blurted, feeling suddenly clear. “Sexual abuse is part of my history, and I don’t want it to be part of other people’s histories.”

Graham listened carefully. Several months before, she’d been trained as a crisis-line volunteer for the region’s domestic and sexual violence advocacy center, called WISE, and she’d learned how to receive a disclosure. 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 wondered. 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 20 years to get healthy again. Maybe it could’ve been only two.”

Maybe, argue sexual assault prevention educators, it could never have happened at all.

Reports of child sexual abuse have dropped 58 percent in the last two decades, says leading researcher, Dr. David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's 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 contributed to reductions. But even with the progress made, the numbers are still staggering: an estimated one in four U.S. girls, one in six boys, has been sexually abused, and children with disabilities are at higher risk.  Over the age of 18, the CDC says, 18 percent of women (and one percent of men) report having been raped, reflecting the shared cultural status of women and children, a cultural status that supports epidemic levels of sexual violence against them both. 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.

Nobody can say for sure how many schools and youth-serving institutions are introducing sexual violence prevention programming in the wake of recent high-profile cases, but we know the number is growing. David Lee, of the nonprofit PreventConnect, says on this front he feels “hopeful.” Fueled by awareness, outrage, and grief, and also by threats of insurance loss and lawsuits—$60 million, Penn State’s penalty; 30 to 60 years, Sandusky’s sentence; $2.2 billion, the amount The Catholic Church has spent litigating with more than 100,000 U.S. survivors—individuals at youth-serving institutions across the country are flight-testing an emerging array of policies and programs that appear to be helping.

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Catherine Buni is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, and The Writer.

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