I finished caddying 18 holes at the local country club. As a seventh-grader, I was feeling pretty rich having carried double bags, earning seven dollars — six dollars plus a dollar tip. It was 1961, and in my wealthy abundance, I strutted to the main road. I stuck out my thumb waist-high to hitch a ride home; that’s how we got around back then. It wasn’t long before a dry cleaning delivery truck stopped, and the middle-aged driver said, “Hop in. Where you going, son?” I let him know that he could drop me off anywhere in town.
The next thing I knew, we turned off the highway onto a dirt road. I thought it was strange, but I figured he knew what he was doing. My innocence never abated even when he stopped the truck, turned off the key, and made an advance toward me as I sat in the passenger’s seat. Fortunately, the horrified look on my face stopped him in his tracks. He rapidly retreated, started up the truck, put it in gear, and we continued down the road.
At the time, I really wasn’t sure what just happened, but the moment was seared in my brain. I can remember the incident now as if it were yesterday; the shining sun, the color of the truck, the narrow, bumpy dirt road, and the relief I felt when I closed the door after I stepped out of the truck. As poet Maya Angelou made clear in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, child abuse is frightening and unforgettable.
Fast forward 50 years and I find myself heading an elementary school in a time when news stations incessantly broadcast stories of child abuse in and out of schools. The highly publicized story of unfathomable abuse by Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, as well the unfathomable response of those with the power to stop it, makes it clear that abuse can happen anywhere — and that adults need to be vigilant and educated. All of us who oversee schools must also ensure that our faculty and staff are well trained in preventing and reporting abuse.
Lisa Friel, a consultant with T&M Protection Resources, has directed thousands of criminal investigations. She has helped convict innumerable sex offenders, has trained hundreds of law enforcement personnel throughout the world, and is the parent of three children who attend independent schools. Last spring, she spoke to the faculty and staff at my school in Brooklyn, New York. Through stories, research, and professional experiences, Friel presented case after case that helped all of us realize that our work hinges not only on guiding and educating the children in our care, but also in remaining attuned to their emotional states and conscious of how we interact with them. What follows are some of the important points Friel made.
When children (or young adults) are abused, or just confronted with advances, they often don’t tell anyone because they:
• do not think that anyone will believe them.
• if given gifts by the abuser, feel that they did something wrong.
• feel guilty for “allowing” advances to take place.
• have been threatened by the adult so that they are scared to speak up.
• sometimes question their sexual orientation if the advance was made by someone of the same sex.
• are embarrassed to talk about what happened.
Because many children do not tell their parents or teachers when an incident occurs, we have to be attentive for red flags in their behavior that indicate something serious has changed in their lives. Signs to watch for:
• sudden incontinence in younger children
• mood changes
• behavioral changes
• a drop in grades
• a reluctance to be with a familiar adult
We have to be available to listen when children want to talk. And when those moments do present themselves, here are a few tips that can help children. Advise them to be cautious of adults who
• help them break rules/laws (e.g., drink alcohol or smoke marijuana).
• say, “Don’t tell anyone. This is our secret.”
• encourage them to or let them look at pornography.
• talk about their sex lives or ask inappropriate questions about the children’s/young adults’ sex lives.
Parents also need to be available when their child wants to talk, not just when they want to talk about issues. Children need to be encouraged to tell a trusted adult when something happens that they do not understand or that makes them uncomfortable.
For faculty and staff in our schools, there are some basic rules we all must follow when working with our students. Here is some advice from Friel that, although obvious, can be elusive, especially when we are wrapped up in our busy days. We must
• be conscious of when we are alone with a student.
• keep doors open when we find ourselves alone with a student.
• be careful how we communicate with a student, especially when using texting and email. Abide by school policies regarding friending, texting, and email.
• be aware of student-teacher crushes.
• immediately inform administration if we suspect any inappropriate action on the part of a teacher or administrator toward a student.
• immediately inform administration if we suspect any inappropriate action on the part of a student toward an adult.
In New York State, all teachers are required to undergo specific training every two years regarding identifying and reporting abuse. Even so, it was highly beneficial for us to have an expert like Friel speak to the faculty and staff at our school. I’d encourage all schools to undergo training and bring in Friel or another expert on a regular basis. It only takes an hour to sensitize us to the dangers of child abuse. But that hour could change a child’s life for the better.
We need to do our part to prevent abuse, and be ready to help our children when something does happen. Parents, educators, coaches, and caregivers serve children best by following this simple advice so that a child never has to ask, “What just happened to me?”