Preventing Sexual Abuse in Schools Starts With Training and Reducing Shame and Fear

We see the headlines about the new Title IX Office in CPS. The background checks. The handful of firings. But it’s harder to see what changes in culture are happening to stop sexual assault in schools. Back in the summer, I talked with experts about what CPS is doing to protect students. Today, I want to talk about what I’m seeing closer to home.

Last week, my daughter came home and said, “We saw a play at school today.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said. “What was it about?”

“Safe touch and unsafe touch,” she said. She told me it was a good play. She didn’t feel that it taught her much she hadn’t already learned from self-defense training at her summer karate camp, but I was glad to see her school stepping up to give students language and tools to stay safe.

This is the first evidence I’ve seen as a parent that anything is happening in Chicago Public Schools to increase students’ own sense of safety regarding sexual assault since last June’s Chicago Tribune series, Betrayed, revealed the deep problems the district has had addressing the issue.

The play was Imagination Theater’s “No Secrets.” No Secrets helps students understand the difference between safe and unsafe touch, what to do when you have the “uh-oh” feeling, how to say no to a touch you don’t like, knowing five safe adults and telling them if unsafe touch happens. And, if reporting to one adult doesn’t get you help, continuing to tell adults until you do get help.

That last point is important. While my child is receiving some basic training to help her know what to do if she faces sexual assault in school, I have no idea what training the adults she spends her day with at school are getting. Just today I found the self-guided online training on preventing and responding to sexual abuse that CPS has created for employees who have not had in-person training in their schools, but I don’t know what happens inside schools themselves.

I worry that it probably isn’t enough.


Teacher Trauma Survivors Need Help To Fight the Freeze Response


I’m a former Catholic school teacher. I know what kind of training I got in an all-girls’ high school in the early 1990s. As a mandated reporter, I was handed a piece of paper with the number to report child abuse on it, and told to keep it in my desk drawer. That was all the training I got.

That “training” didn’t help me much when one of my freshmen English students wrote an essay that mentioned a time when her father had hit her mother. As a survivor of a different kind of family trauma myself, I read that story and froze. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could ask. I didn’t feel safe talking about it with anyone. So, I didn’t do anything.

I held that paper for a long time. Eventually I gave it back, graded, with no comment about the incident between her parents. My student got an A, as usual. She was a quiet, very bright, hardworking student. She got a lot of As. And we never talked about her situation at home.

It was not my finest moment as a teacher. Honestly, it is one of those memories that has tormented me off and on for years. This is the first time I have spoken of it publicly.

I know that today, CPS teachers are required to take the state’s mandated reporter training once every five years. And now there is new training specifically related to sexual abuse in schools.  I’m glad these steps are being taken.

And, as a parent, I have a bunch of questions, centered on this one idea: How many teachers in CPS right now are teachers just like the teacher I was back then?

I want to know how many teachers are good people who want to do the right thing by kids, but are likely to freeze up when a child tells them about a problem related to sexual abuse or assault?

How many are teachers who are carrying their own unaddressed trauma?

How many work in buildings where they don’t have the relationships with other staff that would make it possible to ask for help when they find themselves in a situation that brings up that trauma?

Back in July, I spoke with Julia Strehlow, program manager of education, outreach and training for Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, the city’s frontline responders to reports of child sexual abuse, include sexual abuse in schools. They also respond to reports of physical abuse, child maltreatment and support children who have witnessed violence.

“It’s easy to forget” that adults who have been traumatized can be retraumatized and freeze up when they witness child abuse of any kind, she noted.

She also agreed that teachers need a trusted go-to in each school building to talk with about trauma, how exposure to trauma surfaces in student behavior, and how to cope when a situation triggers their own feelings. “I can go into a school and give them a 2-hour training, but then, I leave. You need someone in the building every day who has a comfort level with the staff.”


I Get Why We Freak About This Topic, But It’s Getting in Our Way


Unfortunately, my sense is that as a culture, our understandable emotional reactivity to the idea that children could face sexual abuse in school is getting in the way of preventing and responding to the realities of sexual abuse and assault taking place in schools.

For example, the number of people who are shocked that since the district’s Title IX office opened, it has already received 624 complaints of sexual misconduct, most of which involve student-to-student problems. But 133 of those cases relate to adult misconduct toward children.

The Chicago Tribune called it “shocking.” Heidi Stevens calls it “shocking.” A friend of mine on Facebook called it “really high.”

News flash: given that there are more than 300,000 students in CPS, people are still probably under-reporting incidents. The prevalence of sexual violence is extremely difficult to measure accurately, in part because of the stigma and shame that surround it. But if even 10 percent of the current students in CPS ever experience it during their school careers that would suggest 30,000 of those children could be affected. If even one percent of them were affected in a year, that could spark as many as 3000 reports. So, to me, it still seems highly likely we’re not seeing the real extent of the problem reflected in reporting.

Of course, we want the number of these problems to be zero. But they aren’t. And if we can’t even have a realistic discussion of the prevalence of the problem, we will never eliminate the levels of shame and fear that keep well-meaning adults from reporting problems when they see them.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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