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.

Some implement in crisis—Boston’s Catholic schools, for instance, 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. Others under law, as is the case in Vermont, where landmark 2009 legislation, called Act One, mandates that all schools implement primary prevention as part of comprehensive health education. In many schools, the topic remains taboo. In many schools, post-trauma crisis is still the norm, and the immediate needs are so great that looking upstream to prevention could be called a luxury. But more and more, Lee says, schools and organizations like the Ray School or The Unitarian Universalist Association, recognized for its Our Whole Lives curriculum, make changes before there are headlines.

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  people themselves, their communities’ legal practices and workplace cultures, history, politics, and religions, with many schools relying on programs that focus on teaching children to protect themselves, perpetuating the notion that victims are somehow responsible for being assaulted. This, despite 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, like other prevention professionals, is extremely careful to note that even the best prevention programming is still only one small piece of the much larger prevention 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 programming in schools and other institutions that care for children is just one small piece of the puzzle, it is not an insignificant 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?

Different approaches work for different communities, depending on staffing, culture, and resources, says Dr. Charol Shakeshaft,  a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. In October 2013, PreventConnect, with support from the Ms. Foundation for Women, helped launch a web-conference called #PowerinPrevention. The series of 15 conferences covered policies, programs, and strategies for interested practitioners, including school administrators and staff. The CDC also offers guidelines. In April, Enough Abuse, a Massachusetts-based sexual abuse prevention initiative with collaborators in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and California, launched a comprehensive prevention campaign for schools and youth-serving organizations called Gatekeepers for Kids. Resources include an online forum, videos, ask-an-expert contacts, and assessment, training, and policy consultation services. Often, Shakeshaft says, programs are found by word of mouth, after calls to local prevention professionals. When Pam Graham from the Ray School called WISE in late 2010 and asked for help, for instance, she was transferred to Kate Rohdenburg, WISE’s Program Manager.

*  *  *

Two months later, on a rainy March evening in 2011, Rohdenburg stood at the front of the Ray School auditorium, waiting for the mothers and fathers to settle in. Susanna Carls sat on the sidelines with Pam Graham and Matt Laramie, the Ray School’s principal and a parent of three who’d greenlighted Pam Graham’s request to call WISE for counsel.

“How do we prevent sexual violence?” Rohdenburg, 26, asked, after a brief introduction to a healthy sexuality curriculum called Care for Kids. Rohdenburg had been trained in the program—developed in Canada and now used in more than a dozen U.S. states—several months before.

She scanned for hands. More than 50 parents had turned out for the information session. More than 70 percent of them 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. But none raised a hand.

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

More silence.

Rohdenburg said, “With Care for Kids, we’re trying to teach young kids and the adults who take care of them communication and 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 start.

*  *  *

We’re teaching life skills, “not sex,” Rohdenburg is careful to say to parents. Rohdenburg does not teach what is popularly called sex ed—not the definition of intercourse, not techniques of contraception, not protections against STDs. She does not speak about anything scary—bad touches or bad people. Care for Kids is what’s called “trauma-informed,” designed with children who may already have been abused in mind. It teaches kids the language and skills of empathy and consent, in age-appropriate ways and over time, she says. These are skills necessary for any healthy relationship, skills demonstrated to prevent offending behaviors.

The program also offers referrals and resources for those interested in implementing school-wide policy and adult education, and 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, say Rohdenburg and other prevention experts, 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.”

The room was quiet. Then parents started to whisper and laugh.

“Who wants to share?” Rohdenburg asked.

A woman raised 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.”

Several parents burst out laughing.

“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.”

“When I was a kid,” another woman said, “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? One study indicates 34 percent of offenders are family members, 59 percent acquaintances. Upward of 94 percent are male, with 30 to 50 percent of abusers 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 sexual assault is huge, both socially and economically. We know that when an organization or a community—whether college campus or elementary school or church group—creates a culture of accountability, where sexual assault is talked about and not tolerated, where inappropriate behaviors are discussed and addressed through organizational policies, and people are educated about healthy sexual development—people are less likely to offend.

Rohdenburg 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. 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 says. “Freakin’ do something.”

Mostly, Rohdenburg asks a lot of questions. Her favorite—it can be asked of anybody, anywhere—“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 a parent asked, “How do we know it works?” There is no quick answer. The adult responsibility-focused programs being adopted across the country show evidence of strengthening protective factors and decreasing the likelihood of child sexual abuse, research shows. They improve hiring practices and reporting, parent-child communication, social and emotional competence, and resilience for both parents and children. Studies show 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. Rohdenburg and Graham did their best to explain.

Another parent asked, “How do we know it works?”

Off to one side, Susanna Carls stood up. For a moment, she said nothing, the color in her cheeks rising. “To me,” she then said, “if there are kids who are helped, great.” The parent said nothing. “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. “I was sexually abused as a girl,” Carls said. “I didn’t say anything for years. I wish I’d been given a voice. I wish someone would have talked about it.” Carls sat down, and the room filled with quiet words of recognition. Thank you and Oh and I’m sorry.

A month later, Rohdenburg returned to the Ray School.

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

“Yes!” Seventeen children yelled happily back.

“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.

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 grow, learn to do more things by themselves, but they still need some help.

For several minutes, Rohdenburg named body parts, and kids called back. “Public!” or “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.

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. She is not afraid of the prospect of their mutiny. More important, she is not frightened by the fact of their sexuality.

“They’re not usually like this,” one teacher said. “They’re excited to have a guest speaker,” explained another. In one of the four “Touching” classes I witnessed Rohdenburg teach—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 freedom of expression, or “agency,” was allowed by adults, most of the children, when asked by a classmate if they could be “hugged” firmly said, “No.” They asked for a high-five or a handshake instead. In the classrooms where adults controlled 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 expectations.

A year later, in spring 2012, while Rohdenburg set up WISE information tables and scheduled prevention and education classes next door at Dartmouth College, which has started to make headlines for widespread campus assault, Graham taught 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. “I do my best to let the children express themselves fully,” she said after the class. There’s so much more to do, she said. By March 2014, she’d taught another 80 children, five and six years old. Only one family opted out, she says.

She wants to integrate curricula for the older grades. Introduce more staff training. The Ray School still sends home parent worksheets and surveys during the classes, but no longer organizes group parent meetings, instead inviting parents individually or in small groups to come in and talk. It’s more comfortable that way. She says that since the Ray School has begun integrating sexual violence prevention policy and education, other colleagues have shared stories of surviving sexual assault. Two kindergarteners have made disclosures to their mothers, both of whom called Graham, a parent 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, 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.”

A longer version of this story previously appeared in Brain, Child Magazine.