Back to School in the #MeToo era: Sex Ed and Sexual Climate

Back to School in the #MeToo era

Well, the kids are back at school, and whether they’re just starting to read or learning the Pythagorean Theorem, they’re going to be learning something about sex.

Don’t look so surprised. Regardless of your children’s age, many of the behaviors they will learn or face as they navigate the jungle of the corridors and playground have their roots in sexual behavior both instinctive and learned. As parents you can help with each for the benefit of your children and everyone around them.

First, there’s sex education itself. Twenty-four states plus the District of Columbia including New Jersey, mandate some sort of sex education, but it’s up to the states to determine what to teach. Twenty-seven states, including both Pennsylvania and New Jersey require schools provide STD and HIV/AIDS education, and the school’s curriculum must be available to parents for review.

While  there are  highly regarded professional  standards  available to educators,  curricula as taught may not be medically accurate, may teach abstinence-only and only two states – California and Louisiana – specifically prohibit the teaching of religion as part of sex education. So, parents should be engaged enough to know what, if any, sex education curriculum is taught in their children’s schools.

Then there’s what I call the “sexual climate” of a school, how it feels to be in that specific building, among those specific faculty, staff and students.

Generally, scholars describe a healthy school climate as having 4 components:

  • A physical environment that is welcoming and conducive to learning
  • A social environment that promotes communication and interaction
  • An affective environment that promotes a sense of belonging and self-esteem for all; and
  • An academic environment that promotes learning and self-fulfillment

A healthy sexual climate in a school addresses these issues as they pertain to sexuality.   A school with a healthy sexual climate promotes tolerance and respect and responds’ quickly to real or perceived threats including rumor, innuendo and bullying. Responses by school personnel to teasing and touching offer teachable moments early in the year, and opportunities to show the consequences of ignoring rules as the school year progresses.  Little ones learn not to tease, and older ones learn that even high-status kids don’t get to grab anyone’s breasts or genitals.

Here’s where parents can play a most important role:  teaching children about empathy. It doesn’t always come naturally to a child, and in fact, it is developmentally normal for  young people to  see the world as revolving around him or herself. But a healthy regard for what other people are feeling will help   your child resist the impulse to snap a girl’s bra strap, tip over the books she’s carrying or call her names when she starts to develop physically. It will help them from shunning the unpopular student, or making fun of their looks, manners of speech or interests, or posting anything on-line without the expressed permission of the subject.

It’s too easy for parents write these behaviors off as “kids will be kids” or to recall one’s own childhood behavior. After all, you turned out all right, didn’t you? But if you look back, what did those inconsiderate and bullying actions mean to the boys and girls at whom they were directed?  How did you learn empathy, and how should your children learn? Does your child stop and think about how his or her actions or words will make the other person feel?

Living an empathic life takes a conscious effort for everyone, but one only has to look at how society is roiling over sexual abuse, sexual harassment and the decline in civil discourse to understand how important it is.

The highest standard for promoting sexual health and safety is for parents to send their children out in the world filled with age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexuality, wrapped up in their  family’s values. If you haven’t had the conversation about empathy you haven’t finished the conversation about sex. Empathy is certainly a subtext of a great deal of what’s taught in school, but if your children are really going to learn this most important lesson you’ll have to start by teaching it at home.

 

 

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of  The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group

 

 

What Parents Can do to Hold Youth Serving Organizations Accountable

One of the most troubling aspects of many high-profile allegations of sexual abuse of children in youth agencies is the failure of these institutions to protect them. Some may argue that this happens out of greed or self-protection. Others will argue that the officials receiving the complaints just couldn’t believe them; after all, had anyone ever heard of a team doctor sexually abusing hundreds of young athletes, or a beloved coach having sex with young boys after practice? Whatever the cause of institutional inaction, the fact remains that parents have a critical role to play in holding institutions accountable, and here are some ways to do that.

Believe your child: I recall a conversation with a friend who grew up in the ’60s; we were discussing the then-breaking story of pedophile priests, and he said that when he told his parents about what he now jokingly called a “Father McFeely” he was harshly punished for disrespecting a priest. In his book, Killing Willis, former child star Todd Bridges alludes to being silenced by his parents when he tried to tell them his publicist sexually abused him; the publicist was key to keeping Bridges working. Parents can learn from these mistakes and come to all conversations about their child’s feeling of safety and security with an open mind.

If your child shares a concern, stay calm, express your support for their feelings, belief in their report and listen carefully. Resist the urge to repeatedly question your child; the science of forensic interviewing has taught us that frequent questioning can cause a child’s narrative to change, which can be a problem if a criminal charge is later filed. Open-ended questions about how a child feels are much safer then demands for times, dates and places.

Young athletes, especially when they reach levels of elite competition, can be trained to ignore their own instincts. While most people respond to feelings like pain and hunger, athletes with a training regimen and weight requirements are trained to power through. We do not want our children powering through any feelings of any nature that make them uncomfortable around their coaches, trainers, or others who have a role in their success.

Speak Truth to Power: When you sign your child up for a sports team or other organization, learn its process for hearing complaints. Be fair and open-minded as it reviews your concern and keep your child away from the suspect circumstance. If after a week or two you feel as if your complaint is being ignored, consider contacting higher authorities. If you are unsure if the issue is serious enough for legal intervention, consider speaking to an expert, such as staff from a Child Advocacy Center.

Perhaps the worst reaction I’ve heard was from a summer camp where my child was enrolled years ago; when I contacted the director after another parent contacted me about an allegation her son was making about a staff member, the director told me that I was welcome to remove my child if I didn’t think the camp was safe. I can still recall my anger as I responded that if the camp wasn’t safe enough for my child it wasn’t safe enough for any child. Parents owe it to each other to consider the safety of all children and not just their own.

We shouldn’t let the fear for our child’s safety keep us from enrolling them in beneficial activities, but we can be mindful of our role in keeping them safe.

 

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of  The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children  and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent  and   The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children.  For more information, read her blog , follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group

 

How’s the ‘sexual climate’ of your child’s school?

How’s the ‘sexual climate’ of your child’s school?

Most of us pay no attention to the weather unless something extraordinary happens — a horrible storm, or a gloriously sunny day in the middle of winter. Likewise, most people pay no attention to the sexual climate in the places they spend their time each day until something doesn’t feel right. Maybe the jokes are just a little bit too risqué, displays of affection are too intense, or questionable photos are hanging over a colleague’s desk; something just feels creepy. A lot of adults relate this concept to their workplace, but few of us recognize that it also applies to our kids’ schools.

Kids spend most of their waking hours in school, and schools each have their own climate or “social feel”.  A school’s “culture” would be its policies, procedures, rules and regulations, while school “climate” refers to how it actually feels to be in a school.  This is a difficult concept for people who have spent time in few schools, but the differences can be vast. Researchers use variations in school climate to predict outcomes like academic achievement, rates of bullying, and sexual health and safety.

What is a healthy sexual climate?

Every school has a physical, social, affective and academic environment, and they can all relate to sexual health and safety. Here are some examples of what we don’t want in the school climate:

  • Children terrified to change clothes in the locker room or walk through certain corridors;
  • A popular teacher texting favorite students;
  • Sexual slurs used with impunity; and
  • A bus driver whose hand brushes against a student’s butt as she exits.

On the other hand, here are some examples of what we hope for:

  • Faculty and staff who understand the psychosexual developmental stages of their students and have appropriate expectations;
  • An air of mutual respect between genders, between adults and students,            between administration and staff and people of different sexual orientation;
  • Locker room and bathroom privacy with age-appropriate adult supervision; and
  • Parents who model and reinforce these ideals at home.

A school with a healthy sexual climate promotes tolerance and respect, and the faculty and staff respond quickly to real or perceived threats including rumor, innuendo and bullying.

Why is it important to understand sexual climate?

  • To eliminate student-staff sexual relationships: A 2004 report commissioned by the US Department of Education, still considered the most  authoritative study on this topic  concluded that at least 5 percent of students report sexual contact with school personnel by the time they graduate. High-profile cases of student-teacher sexual relationships are making the news more frequently, but their incidence is not new at all. No parent wants to consider the awful possibility of their child in a sexual relationship with an adult charged with their care. A school with an unhealthy sexual climate can provide cover for predators disguised as a popular teacher or coach.
  • To improve learning: A school owes your child accurate, unbiased and age-appropriate education on topics where sex and sexuality have a role. Art and history, for example, join anatomy and physiology as topics requiring a healthy sexual climate for learning.
  • To stop bullying: No child can learn when he or she feels unsafe. An unhealthy sexual climate may show itself in girls who fear being fondled when walking through crowded halls, boys terrified of locker room antics or sexual-minority youth being targeted for bullying or physical violence.

What can a parent do?

Open communication with your children is important here, as it is with many parenting issues. Pay attention to how students and teachers speak and behave when you visit the school, and don’t just visit on parent-teacher days. Use this  checklist  to help assess the sexual climate in your child’s school and contact school officials if you have any concern.  Remember, the climate of any organization is determined by its members, and parents are very important members of a school community.

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the national consultant for child sexual abuse prevention for Prevent Child Abuse America and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent. For more information, read her blog or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group.

 

 This article originally appeared at  http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/healthy_kids/Hows-the-sexual-climate-of-your-childs-school.html

 

A sex-wise parent’s view on how to prepare your child for back-to-school

While conducting focus groups for my book, The Sex-Wise Parent, the son of a minister shared how his parents prepared him for his first day of school.  I love the lessons from this story so much that I want to share it with parents everywhere.

Tom and his family had just moved to a new town so his father could attend  to a new parish.   Tom was set to attend a school serving boys from first grade through 12th, and at six years of age, this was his first year of school.

Maybe because it was the 60’s, or maybe because of their own childhood memories — whatever the reason — Mom and Dad were pretty sure that  the older boys in  this school would be all too willing to teach little Tom their version of  the birds and bees.  These sex-wise parents sat down with their son together with a book that included charts and diagrams of sexual and reproductive anatomy and physiology.  They explained male and female anatomy and how  people got pregnant, and encouraged him to ask questions.  He recalled  “I asked them if (ejaculation)  was like peeing in there — YUK !”   Decades later, he still recalls their patient answer that “one set of tubes shuts off so the other can work — so that seeds can come out instead of pee.”

The other focus group members and I listened in dumbstruck awe and envy.  How lucky was Tom!   When the older boys teased and told stories about sex, he was prepared with the truth.   Tom’s parents sent him off to his first day of school filled with factual information wrapped up in their family’s values.

Tom also learned that sexual touching  was special and reserved for people in love.  What a contrast to today, when so many kids hear about sexual touching for the first time in the context of a good touch/bad touch sex abuse prevention program.   By teaching Tom that sexual touching was part of a loving, special, grown up relationship, they were de facto teaching him that any grown up who tried to touch him in a sexual way was doing something wrong.  And most importantly, they were modeling that they were open to hearing what he had to ask or say about sex.

Their final words on the topic also warmed my heart.  When I asked Tom if his parents were worried about him telling the other kids about sex he replied, “Not at all.   In fact, they told me that getting to tell a child about sex was a privilege reserved for parents, and it was my job to keep this to myself so other parents get to have the very special conversation with their kids like we’d just had”.

Not everyone has the comfort and skills of Tom’s parents, but any parent can develop them!  I wrote The Sex-Wise Parent to help parents do just  that, and provide helpful resources at my website.  Please —  use these resources to help make yours a sexually safe and healthy family, school and community.

Ever hear of an ephebophile? They are just like pedophiles, except they’re after teens!

The story of Brittni Colleps, a Texas school teacher charged with having sex with four students at her home, is a sickening example of a loss of discipline in the people and institutions to whom we entrust our children.

As upsetting as it is, this case can give parents the opportunity and motivation to make sure that their schools, and their children, are safe from type of sexual predator. And it is predation – even though the (alleged) victims were all over 18, they were students in Colleps’ school and we depend on that relationship to be friendly and professional, but not sexual.

Have a look at my checklist to determine if the ‘sexual climate’ in your child’s school might also allow this kind of behavior.

Sexual climate in this context is a variation of “school climate”, a concept used by scholars of educational administration to describe the “feel” of being is a specific school. While “school culture” refers to the rules, policies and procedures of a school district and is uniform throughout a school district, the climate can vary greatly from school to school, depending on the faculty, staff, students, or even factors like the design of a building. The sexual climate in a school where a teacher might be sexually involved with a number of students is clearly dangerous.

The Sandusky case and clergy scandals have placed a bright spotlight on pedophiles, adults who are sexually attracted to young children and eventually sexualize their trust and affection, generally leading to rape. The allegations against Brittny Colleps remind us that there is more than one type of sexual predator lusting after our kids.

Professionals use the term hebephile for someone with a preference for children just entering puberty and the term ephebophile to describe someone with an attraction to older adolescents. You don’t need to remember the names; you do need to understand that the need to know every adult who spends time with our kids does not end with elementary school.

An example of the destruction an ephebophile can leave in his path might be found in the story of Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky was sexually involved with her high school drama teacher, a man described in a HBO special by other students in her school as a known predator. If kids know which teachers are predators, adults stand a chance of knowing as well. There are easy steps that any parent can take, including recognizing the prevalence of these relationships, maintaining open communication with a teen, and knowing every adult who spends alone-time with them. Then, consider talking with other parents to answer these questions.

Allegations like those against Brittni Colleps and the reports of convictions of teachers from schools all over the country remind us that sexual predators can be of any age or gender. If we read the report published by the US Department of Education — and I urge you to follow this link — Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature — you’ll see how common this behavior really is.

But if you’ll read my checklist you’ll see that there are steps a Sex-Wise Parent can take to ensure that the sexual climate of the schools serving their kids will promote sexual health and safety.

 

Sex abuse in school?

As the back to school transition eases into a comfortable routine, this is a good time to consider  a finding published in a report by the U.S. Department of Education: Various studies show that as many as 5 percent of kids report a sexual contact with a school employee sometime during their school experience.

Section 5414 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended required a study of sexual abuse in U.S. schools and the United States Department of Education contracted with Dr. Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University to complete a literature review and analysis. You can — and should — read the entire report entitled  Educator Sexual Misconduct:  A Synthesis of Existing Literature .

Shakeshaft reviewed and critiqued dozens of studies on sexual abuse in schools and no matter how we slice and dice her results — even if she is off by a factor of 10 (which I totally doubt) her findings should make any parent stand up and take notice. Parents of young, prepubescent children need to be aware of the way pedophiles can ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and family, gaining trust then violating it in the most unimaginably devastating manner.

By the time  our kids become teens, we are less worried about pedophiles and more worried about stupid, manipulative adults of either gender. Many adolescents,  particularly girls, appear to be a sexually mature adult years before their  social, emotional and intellectual development catch up to their bodies. While  many of us know about school-girl crushes that teens develop on adults, it’s also true that adults develop crushes on kids. Whether it’s the male teacher  living out his mid-life crisis with a crush on a young girl, or the young, plain-jane teacher responding to her first experience of male adoration, there  is a surprisingly large number of possibilities for indiscretions. And most teachers are completely unprepared for this experience.

A smart social worker I know sought support from her supervisor to maintain a treatment relationship with a particularly handsome 17-year-old-boy. A teacher I met knew to make sure he was never alone with the student who fit his model of attraction. Not all professionals bother to do the work necessary to process their very human reaction to an attractive or charming person. Teens, with their still under-developed frontal lobes, lack the judgment to understand that  this type of adult attention is wholly inappropriate.

Parents of little ones need to know every adult who may have the opportunity to be alone with their child. Parents of teens need to pay close attention to all of the relationships their kids have with adults. All parents can do their best to make sure their kids have age-appropriate knowledge and language about sex and sexuality, and keep lines of communication wide open.

More information is coming!  Read my forthcoming  book The Sex-Wise Parent, on sale  April 2012 from Skyhorse Publishing

Kids, books and sex: Thoughts for a sex-wise parent!

I remember the first time I was swept away by a book. I was reading Gone with the Wind as a young teen, and noon became dinner time in what seemed like 5 minutes. I still recall my delight at finally understanding why people said that reading could be magic; I felt like a grown up secret had been revealed to me when I experienced the sense of being transported through time and by developing what seemed like a real emotional attachment to the characters.

Later, while reading the wildly popular ”’Flowers in the Attic” series of books and I felt torn as themes of love and longing came into the story, confounded by the fact that the attraction was between siblings. The female protagonist in the book describes her powerful, newfound feeling by saying “I was coming alive, feeling things I hadn’t felt before. Strange achings, longings. Wanting something, and not knowing what is was that woke me up at night”.  And no doubt, those same feelings were happening to me and millions of other readers.
As a parent, I relied on ratings when evaluating media my child might consume. The young adult specialists of American Library Association use the “YA,” or Young Adult designation for books they deem appropriate for readers between the ages of 12 and 18. There is a world of difference among kids at either end of this age group and YA books deal with some very mature themes. So-called ‘coming of age’ stories are prominent in this genre and often include a theme of a young person experiencing a grown-up challenge or experience for the first time. Young love and first romance are common and a young reader’s reaction to detailed descriptions of strong feelings and romantic interludes, – even the ones that don’t involve actual sex – may be surprisingly intense. Many kids experience their first stirrings of sexual arousal while reading.

Discussing books with our kids can provide a drama-free opportunity to discuss sexuality; you’re not asking them to do something or forbidding them from something else. A shared interest in a book can be a great conversation-starter to help guide your child toward healthy attitudes about gender roles, intimacy, respect, love, relationships, communication and other areas. We can share our own feeling about books and characters we’ve loved: “One reason we love a book it makes us feel things,” you might explain. “A murder mystery might scare you, an adventure story may get you excited about something and a romance may stir up sexual feelings.” This conversation might feel awkward if you’ve never broached the issue of sexual feelings with your child, but it’s a good place to start. This conversation can be especially important for our daughters; sexual arousal is way less obvious for them than it is for our sons and it’s good for them to have a name for that warm feeling they get when reading about love or romance. Boys and girls both reap lifelong benefits from the knowledge that arousal is a reflex, something their body does in response to stimulation, whether they want it to happen or not… that’s a topic for another blog!

Books are a tool for connecting with our kids of all ages. They learned about love and intimacy during cozy toddler moments as they drifted off to sleep in our lap listening to their favorite story. As they enter the “YA” phase, they stand to learn many more lessons about love and intimacy, and we can continue to help make sure they understand the lessons!

Note — this post origionally appeared   at  5 Minutes  for Mom — see http://bit.ly/SPc56F