Speak Up and Demand Schools Play a Role in Sexual Abuse Prevention

By Renée Layman, LMHC, President and CEO

Sexual Abuse: A Public Health Crisis

The statistics are alarming. Every nine minutes, a child is a victim of sexual abuse and assault (rainn.org). It is astounding that our home state of Florida ranks third in the nation in calls to the National Human Trafficking hotline. 70 to 90 percent of commercially exploited youth have a history of child sexual abuse.

We hear about it far too often–family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, pastors, priests, political, and business leaders are charged with sexual assault. Awareness of these offenders and those victims being grotesquely violated and trafficked is not enough: the abuse needs to be stopped before it happens and our schools must play a role in this prevention.

One in four girls and one in thirteen boys will report they were sexually abused by the age of 18. Sexual abuse and human trafficking can have long-lasting physical and emotional effects, including: depression, eating disorders, self-blame, self-destructive behaviors, intergenerational cyclical abuse, learning disabilities, and drug abuse.

The Numbers

A Public Health Crisis Demands a Public Health Approach

As devastating as this public health crisis is, sexual abuse and these long-term effects can be prevented through education. 28 states, including Florida, and D.C. have passed legislation mandating instruction within schools on child sexual abuse awareness and prevention, as of January 2023. Unfortunately, 14 states have no laws in place. Every educator and every student across the United States should be equipped with the knowledge needed to prevent child sexual abuse. It is necessary to implement a public health approach to make a seismic difference in stopping abuse and human trafficking in its tracks.

Such an approach includes creating a system of awareness, education, prevention, support, and treatment in communities. Like the public health approach model used for wearing seat belts to prevent injury and death, we must change the societal behavior and norms around sexual abuse in order to alter society for the better. The long-term health and safety benefits of increasing trauma-aware adults has a direct correlation to decreasing all types of child abuse–sexual along with physical, emotional, and neglect. In turn, this can lead to higher educational achievement, less involvement with the criminal justice system, and better physical health and social outcomes overall.

Educational institutions play a critical role in reaching our students and teachers and beyond to our parents, families, and communities. We must use our schools as the grounds for preventing sexual abuse and breeding positive childhood experiences and positive community experiences.

Intervention and prevention must start in early childhood and continue through elementary, middle, and high school. The comprehensive public health approach to addressing child sexual abuse within schools includes: trauma-informed training and education for our teachers, parents and adult caregivers; quality health education for our students and teachers, inclusive of sexual abuse awareness and prevention; connecting students to mental healthcare professionals for treatment, either within or outside the school walls; increasing the capacity for students to access mental health services; and creating environments where students feel connected and supported.

As the CEO of Center for Child Counseling, a nonprofit that supports schools, teachers, students, and caregivers, we embrace this public health model and want to ensure every student across the United States is protected and safe from abuse. We recently launched bekidsafe.org–a platform for educators and other child-facing professionals to easily access online training programs and workshops to learn how to keep children safe through effective strategies that prevent abuse, build safety and communication skills, promote positive relationships and resilience, and identify risk early.

Rely on a research-based program like Stay KidSafe!™, which is approved by the School District of Palm Beach County, or look to your local community to determine if there are groups you can partner with, to teach your students safety tools and skills to empower them to make safe and smart choices in all areas so they can grow up to be healthy, powerful adults.

The overall health, wellness, and protection of children in today’s challenging times should not be left to families to struggle in isolation. Feeling safe and protected is vital to a child’s development.

Whether you’re a fellow community leader, educator, parent, or adult interacting with children in any capacity, join me in changing the trajectory of this public health crisis. Find out what the schools in your community are doing to support the health and protection of their students. Encourage your teachers and school leaders to seek the proper training and provide the necessary resources to promote healthier families, schools, and communities where every child is safe from abuse.

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