Penn State may not be the exception when it comes to sexual culture and climate

As the shock of the contents of the Freeh report settles in, this is a good time to remember that no single school has cornered the market  on being a risk to the sexual health and safety of students.    A  report  published  by the U.S. Department of Education says that various studies show that as many as 5 percent of kids report a sexual contact with a school employee sometime during their school experience.  I’ve written about this before, and I’ll keep writing about this until every single parent is prepared to consider and understand the sexual climate of their child’s school and every other institution where the child spends time.

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. Actually, now that we’ve read the Sandusky indictment and the Freeh report, it’s tragically not so unimaginable anymore.

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 too many teachers are completely unprepared for this experience.

I devote a great deal of time to this issue in The Sex-Wise Parent.  I use Monica Lewinsky as an example since her experience with a predatory teacher seems to have played a role in her being sentenced to life as the punch line of a joke.  Every person who enjoyed a laugh at her expense should know that Monica learned to trade sex for status from one of her high school teachers.  Further, interviews aired on national TV make it clear that many people knew this teacher was a predator!

Whether we’re talking about Jerry Sandusky operating with impunity at Penn State or Monica’s teacher having his pick of the graduating seniors, the sexual climate is way off balance in many of the institutions serving our kids.  Parents need the tools and skills to understand; to open the discussion, see my checklist and check this site often for more information.

 

Include a plan to become a sex-wise parent in your schedule for the next school year

As many of us are enjoying our summer schedule or looking forward to our vacation, some folks are deeply into their plans for the 2012-2013 school year.  After the horror of the Summer of Sandusky it’s my hope that  program planners for schools, congregations and social and civic organizations throughout this country will take a good hard look at what they are doing to help keep kids and families sexually safe and healthy.   I want to help.  I have developed workshops for parents and professionals based on my experience in sex abuse treatment and prevention and the research I completed to write The Sex-Wise Parent.    I took the semester off from teaching to help reach families and communities everywhere.  Download this flyer and send it to the people planning programs in your community!  I’m ready  when you are!

Hot Weather Can Mean ‘Hot’ Clothes, So What’s the Dress Code in Your Family?

It may be snowing in Colorado, but it’s pushing 90 in LA, and the heat will reach all of us sooner or later. While lots of folks are worried about what these extreme weather swings mean for the atmosphere, (and I am thankful for scientists!)  I focus my attention on  a parents need to understand the effect the heat can have on kids. Let me explain.  Yes, dehydration from the heat is one issue, but some children have been waiting all winter for an excuse to bare their skin in clothes that are more suitable for a dance club than school!  Let the  battles begin.

Not necessarily.  For parents, a good  place to start is  determine your child’s school’s policy on dress code and how is it enforced.

At the very least, schools should prohibit children from exposing their belly buttons, breast cleavage, butt cleavage  and the wearing suggestive slogans on t-shirts by either students or staff. It is perfectly natural for teens and pre-teens to push boundaries and arrive in school wearing something that bends—if not actually breaks—the dress code rules. School staff should react firmly to any breaches in the rules, while not outright embarrassing or humiliating the student in any way. Consider calling a guidance counselor and asking about thier policies and procedures.

A common problem among younger kids is they may believe that a certain type of look equates to being attractive—without understanding that “the look” has a sexual connotation. When a nine-year-old girl chooses a bedazzled tube top with a decidedly “hookerish” look, her parents needs to supplement their “no” with an explanation beyond a “because I said so.” Explaining to kids that certain kinds of clothes carry a message (one that is not always appropriate for their age) is a good place to start. Try to use a uniform as an example and say something to this effect—“When you wear shin guards, I know you’re getting ready to play soccer.” This starts the discussion about how a particular look is seen by some people as a signal that you’re dressed for a specific activity. You could explain to young kids that certain items of clothing are seen as a “uniform” for people who like to “kiss” or “flirt” or an equivalent term that will make an eight -year-old think, “Yuck.”   What a great opportunity to discuss how people decide what they think is pretty, focusing on cocenpts like  choice and taste and individuality!

Girls are especially are pressured to appear looking sexual at young ages, by being exposed to promotions for  baby bikinis and padded bras for eight-year-olds. Boys may need help understanding what is really conveyed by the tough-guy looks. But all kids need to know your rules, your values and believe that you will enforce the dress code set by their school.

Learn more about how to support your child’s sexual health and safety from my book, The Sex Wise Parent by visiting www.sexwiseparent.com

 

Be prepared — Sex Abuse CAN happen here!

Some people like to believe that abuse of children is a problem restricted to the poor, or disadvantaged.  No so.   The sex abuse allegations involving a prep school upscale enough to  include the son of a governor  are a stark reminder that people who prey on kids can be anywhere.

Predators come in all shapes, sizes, neighborhoods and income levels.  They can ingratiate themselves into the lives of children and families as friends, coaches, clergy, baby sitters or teachers.   The most important step a parent can take is to have  open and honest  age-appropriate  conversations with their children throughout their childhood and adolescence.  Natural discussions that include all parts of the body are a key.   Conversational lessons about nice relationships — the kind where everyone considers each others feelings –can start with toddlers and continue as children develop a wider circle of acquaintances.  And here’s the step that most people skip — ensure that your child’s school and the other institutions in your community have take steps to prevent sexual abuse and have a well thought out policy on how to respond if allegations are made.

The best news to come out of this story  from the NJ prep school is that the administration appears to be behaving responsibly.   The alleged perpetrator was brought back from another state to face the NJ investigation and press reports quote his superiors as saying he is being kept under tight restrictions.

The title of this blog post mirrors the title of the last chapter in my book, The Sex Wise Parent.  There’s a lot to learn about being a prepared family and community, and you can find it in my book.

 

 

 

A Sex Educator can help in the aftermath of sex abuse

The LA elementary school which attracted national attention for the disgraceful acts of a few teachers and the courage of the administration to act decisively on their behalf now has a new principal.   Dolores Palacio, New Miramonte principal has a long road ahead to achieve many goals, and none so important as regaining the trust of parents.  In order to do so, she has to establish a new, healthy and open sexual climate in the school and include all faculty, staff, parents and students in her efforts.

Scholars studying school achievement often talk about school climate; in my book the Sex-Wise Parent,  I borrowed their basic concepts to discuss sexual climate   to describe the overall  feeling  in a school building around sexual issues.  Palacio has an unprecedented opportunity to establish a new, healthy, open sexual climate, based on honesty, respect, accurate information and parental involvement.  To help this process along, I urge her to identify credentialed sexuality educators in her community and hire them to do the following:

  • Offer all staff a mandatory in-service training on how to discuss sexuality with children in an age appropriate way.  This comprehensive workshop should include a review of anatomy and physiology, the opportunity to practice using appropriate sexuality terms.
  • Offer all parents workshops on discussing sexuality with their children, including both the healthy, loving aspects and the opportunities for exploitation such as the acts that took place in their school. In many families it’s likely that this tragedy triggered their first discussion about sexuality with their kids; if this is the case, a balanced perspective is needed.
  • Offer teachers assistance integrating sexual issues into thier curricula in  the most  approproiate way;  health, bilogy, art, literature, history and other subjects often have unerlying sexual themes, and this is not the time for Miramonte faculty to ignore them.

Kids’ early lessons about sex can last a life time.  The services of sexuality educators  can be a remarkable asset for the Miramonte community as they work to support healing  for their kids, families and throughout the community.

Find more at www.SexWiseParent.com

Was removing the whole staff of a school with allegations of sex abuse a good idea? YOU BET!!

Superintendent John Deasy of the Los Angeles Unified School District took a courageous step  this week  by removing  the entire staff of one of the largest elementary schools in the country in the face of  evidence  supporting allegations of sexual abuse of children by his staff.  Of course, the fact that the most notoriously botched investigation of child sexual abuse  (the McMartin pre-school case which generated a trial lasting from 1987-1990) took place in a neighboring county, could have provided some strong motivation!

The Associated Press quoted Deasy: “We intend to interview every adult, every adult who works at that school, whether they are a teacher or administrator, or whether they are an after-school playground worker or a custodian or a secretary. I mean every single solitary adult who works at Miramonte.”

Advocates for preventing child sexual abuse should be waiting anxiously to read the findings of this investigation. Scholars in the field of education have spent decades studying the concept of school climate, defined as the way it feels to be in a specific school building. School climate has been shown to impact academic outcomes, student violence and other important issues.  In my book The Sex Wise Parent, I expand on that concept and focus an entire chapter on helping parents understand and pay attention to the sexual climate of their child’s schools.  We can no longer ignore the potential risk to kids who attend schools staffed by educators and administrators who are not paying attention to implicit and explicit message kids get from them about sex. A report published by the US Department of Education includes the estimate that at least 5 percent of all kids have some type of sexual contact with school personnel.

Deasy is right that every single adult in that school helps set the sexual climate.  For a checklist on assessing the sexual climate of your child’s school click here.

What parents must learn from the Penn State allegations of sexual abuse

I guess  it’s understandable that the big question right now seems to be what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it.   As a Penn State alum, this makes me beyond sad.   As an undergraduate, I actually  had President Spanier as a professor in the College of Human Development, and my first masters degree is from what was then the College of Health and Physical Education.  Parterno was  among that faculty in my day, so this is personal to me.

I’ve devoted a large part of my career to the investigation, treatment and prevention of sexual abuse of children, much of it based on the foundation of the fine education I received from Penn State.  We cannot condemn the entire institution.  And solely focusing on Paterno – who I can’t help but thinking of as the Pope of Penn State –  will not save any children.   It’s truly  unthinkable to me that a 21st century professional could think a phone call to anyone other than police was a sufficient response to an alleged eye-witness report of a child’s rape in one of his facilities.  On the other hand,  the thought of someone raping a child in one of his facilities may have seem  so completely implausible that perhaps  he thought his minimal response was adequate.  Anyone who has ever had to face the crushing reality that a partner has been unfaithful for years or that a trusted employee has been embezzling money  knows that the human mind  only understands that which seems possible to us. Maybe, just maybe, this seemed so impossible to Paterno that he found his response sufficient.

So here’s one lesson for parents — Do not ever forget that the sexual abuse of children is a reality and the perpetrator really can be anyone.  Even someone who appears to be a fine upstanding person who cares for your child and maybe even your family. Even a favorite teacher.  A coach. The person you’re dating. The babysitter.

Here’s another lesson —  There is absolutely no choice but to knowas much as you can about  every adult spending time with your child.   There is no substitute for vigilance.  A convicted pedophile I interviewed for my book The Sex Wise Parent made it  quite clear that kids lacking vigilant parents or caretakers were much more attractive targets. Pedophile coaches notice which parents stay for practice or show up unannounced then really pay attention to what’s happening on the field.

Here’s a third — Pedophiles ingratiate themselves into the life of your child and sometimes your family, and seduce your child by meeting his or her needs. This need could be emotional such as affection and attention from an adult male, or tangible as Todd Bridges described regarding his abuse by his publicist in his autobiography KillingWillis. By the time sex is introduced the child (or in some awful cases,  the family) may accept sex as the price to be paid for the positive points of the relationship. The allegations reported in the  Grand Jury report describe the seduction of vulnerable children with trips and gifts.

And the last lesson for now is this; families must provide children with information and language about sexuality.   I’ll provide detail on how parents can do this in future posts.  For now, concentrate on opening your mind to be able to think the unthinkable.  Maybe if Joe Pa had been able to do that a few kids might have been saved.

 

What’s the Sexual Climate in Your Child’s School?

How often do you think about the weather? Most of us pay no attention to the actual climate surrounding us 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, or displays of affection don’t feel quite right, or questionable photos are hanging over a colleague’s desk; something just feels creepy. Apparently, sexual climate in Mason High School in Ohio was roiling into the perfect storm and at least 5 known victims were caught in the path. High school health and gym teacher Stacey Schuyler was found guilty on 16 counts of sexual battery because she decided to have sex with the football team and no one got in her way.

Kids spend most of their waking hours in school, and schools each have their own climate or “social feel”. Education experts conduct studies looking at the relationship between school climate and bullying, school climate and achievement, school climate and discipline, and other issues. In the same way, parents need to examine the concept of school climate and sexual safety and understand how to recognize signs that the climate may be turning dangerous.

It is inconceivable that no one knew anything at all about this abuse of power and trust. What was it about the climate in this high school that held this secret as closely as any member of a dysfunctional family hiding incest until one brave soul contacted authorities? Were sexual innuendo’s acceptable? Were male and females treated differently? Was the sexual climate so closed that no one ever discussed sex, or so open that having sex with the football team seemed as American as Apple Pie?

Judge Robert Peeler found Stacy Schuler guilty on 16 felony counts of sexual battery and three misdemeanor counts of providing alcohol to minors, and good for him. Women who abuse boys deserve no special treatment because of the gender of their victims. The male autonomic response to arousal renders him even more vulnerable to devastating confusion when a pleasurable physical feeling becomes associated with a negative emotional experience. We’ve long known about male predators, but females can be just as predatory and hide behind the self-delusion that they’re doing a boy a favor. That’s absurd; the devastation cause by the abuse of power by a person with authority over a child has no upside. People tend to be less suspicious of females, particularly teachers who are in a position to nurture young spirits, making their abuse of authority particularly odious.

The sexual climate in school can vary from building to building in a district and from year to year in the same building. Throughout my career I have worked with teachers from schools where everyone “knows” that a teacher is having sex with students and no one speaks up, and with teachers from schools where an off-color joke by a teacher is grounds for disciplinary action.

What do you know about the sexual climate in your child’s school? You never want to find yourself in the sad position of the parents of these boys;  heartbreaking testimony we hear from victims and thier loved ones is a wake up call for parents everywhere.

Here’s a chekcklist   to help assess the sexual climate in your childs school; you can learn  more from my book, The Sex Wise Parent.