School Climate & Safety

South Carolina Training Aimed at Sex-Abuse Prevention

By Michele McNeil — May 29, 2008 5 min read
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The South Carolina Department of Education is launching a statewide effort to prevent sex abuse in schools by training 10,000 teachers and other school employees this summer in how to spot potential problems and intervene in abusive relationships.

Teachers, school nurses, counselors, and administrators will take part in a 2½-hour training course through the national nonprofit group Darkness to Light, based in Charleston, S.C., which works to combat child sex abuse.

In addition to the training, each of the state’s 86 school districts will identify a facilitator who will complete a more in-depth, full-day training in the curriculum. The facilitators will then help train other teachers, enforce good child-safety practices, and lead a response team if abuse is reported or suspected.

South Carolina is kicking in $30,000 for the training, while Darkness to Light is using $132,700 it received from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Preventing Sexual Abuse at School

The South Carolina Department of Education will train 10,000 teachers and other school personnel this summer using a program from Darkness to Light, an organization that seeks to prevent child sex abuse. Here are highlights of the “Stewards of Children” training program:

• The training is 2½ hours long and takes place online or in facilitator-led small groups.

• Both training formats include a documentary that features narratives from victims and experts, and a workbook that challenges each person to think specifically about each child he or she encounters.

• The curriculum focuses on teaching adults to prevent child sex abuse, recognize warning signs, and react responsibly.

• Participants each create a personal prevention plan for the children they encounter in their regular routines.

• Facilitators undergo an all-day training session and receive ongoing support from the organization; they then may conduct the 2½-hour regular training sessions.

SOURCE: Darkness to Light

The training is one product of a task force convened last year by Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and the state’s attorney general and social-services director in the wake of national and state news reports of teachers’ sexual misconduct with students. Media reports indicate that within the past year, eight teachers in South Carolina have been arrested for having sexual relations with students.

“It’s not that you can train people not to do stupid things. We can’t change them. What we want to do is train everyone in the school to keep their eyes open for things that don’t look right and to create a culture that values students,” said Mark Bounds, the state’s deputy superintendent for educator quality and leadership, who is in charge of implementing the program.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Mr. Bounds worked on similar issues while commanding basic-training battalions until he retired in December 2000.

Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting group based in Cleveland, said training programs such as South Carolina’s can help pick up where criminal-background checks leave off. He said such a program can help break down the reluctance to talk about improper relationships between teachers and students.

“We’re talking about several decades of a culture that would rather downplay and deny problems,” Mr. Trump said. “This is the first step in changing the conversation.”

An Associated Press series last year found more than 2,500 cases in a five-year period of educators who were punished for sexual misconduct with students. But the investigation also found that those figures understate the scope of the problem, that most abuse is never reported, and that many reported cases result in no action. (“Sex Abuse a Shadow Over U.S. Schools,” Oct. 24, 2007.)

The employee-training initiative is just one piece of a larger strategy the South Carolina task force has created to counter sexual abuse of children.

React Responsibly

State officials are working with the legislature to close loopholes in child-sex-abuse laws. Legislation that was advancing last week would impose tougher criminal penalties for teacher misconduct. The proposal would also change the age of consent to 18. Now, the age of consent is 16—which means a teacher could have sex with a 16-year-old student without fear of criminal prosecution.

The task force is also working with all 32 of the state’s colleges of education so that teacher-candidates complete the program before they get their first jobs, Mr. Bounds said.

To reach the 10,000-employee statewide target for the initial employee training, each South Carolina district will train 20 percent of its teachers and other school personnel such as guidance counselors, nurses, and administrators. State education officials hope they can find additional money next year to train more teachers and other employees. Private schools can participate for a $10-per-person fee.

The teacher-training program, which will be done online or in regional training sessions, has two aims: to make sure that teachers maintain appropriate relationships with their students, and that school personnel can recognize signs of trouble and react responsibly if students confide in them about abuse that happens in or out of school.

Anne Lee, the president and founder of Darkness to Light, said that although children are unlikely to report abuse, when they do, nearly half tell a teacher.

“When a child discloses that to you, how you respond in that split second is so critical—you have the emotional well-being of that child in your hands,” Ms. Lee said. “Teachers deserve to have that level of training so they know how to react.”

Her organization’s training program, called “Stewards of Children,” was the recipient of the Crime Prevention Program of the Year award in 2007 from the National Crime Prevention Association.

The online training features narratives from victims of child sex abuse, perspectives from professionals such as nurses and police officers, and an interactive workbook that guides educators through specific prevention and intervention strategies.

Sexual Abuse of Students by School Employees

Read more about this series, “A Lingering Shame: Sexual Abuse of Students by School Employees.” The collection includes a new Associated Press series on the issue, as well as special Education Week coverage.

While many youth-oriented groups, individual school districts, and community organizations have undertaken such training, Ms. Lee said that South Carolina is the first to take child-sex-abuse training to the statewide scale.

“All schools have policies on this kind of thing,” she said, “but this training makes that quantum leap between the policy on the shelf and the action in the school.”

Sheila Gallagher, the president of the South Carolina Education Association, who served on the state sex-abuse task force, said the group wanted to ensure the training reached two different types of teachers: a new teacher, especially one in his or her early 20s who is fresh out of college and may need to be reminded of appropriate boundaries with students, and longtime teachers who need to recognize the signs of problem situations.

“We had a couple of incidents here in the state, and we realized we needed to look at what is it that we need to know to protect our children,” said Ms. Gallagher, who is on leave from her job as a 7th grade health teacher while she leads the state’s National Education Association affiliate. “This is a good start.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as South Carolina Training Aimed at Sex-Abuse Prevention

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