Few Students Taught Good Touch, Bad Touch
Schools Often Silent on Sex Abuse Prevention

By Kim Kozlowski
Detroit News [Michigan]
Downloaded March 24, 2004

STERLING HEIGHTS — `Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t play with matches. Never talk to strangers.

These were some of the safety lessons a group of Willow Woods second-graders recently reviewed before learning another lesson that often goes untaught: What to do if someone touches them in areas their bathing suit covers.

“Say no. Get away. Tell someone,” said Rosemary Spatafora, a teacher who presented the program to about 50 public school students with a character known as Safety Bear. “Probably nothing like this will ever happen to you ... but we think this is so important to learn.”

In Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit and in many Michigan public schools, lessons about good and bad touch are not taught. Experts say the lessons could help children ward off sexual predators.

In the wake of the Catholic church’s sexual abuse crisis that led to the assault of at least 10,000 children in the past 50 years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops required sex abuse prevention lessons in Catholic schools as part of an effort to create safe environment programs. But Archdiocese of Detroit students receive no such education, and there is no concrete time frame yet in which to provide it because the diocese is first addressing some of the other requirements, such as training adults and background checks of employees.

In public schools, 40 percent of children don’t get a lesson on inappropriate touching, according to state health officials. Core classes such as reading and math often take precedence over health education, which is typically where such a lesson might unfold in the classroom, state health officials say. The lesson on sexual abuse is not required in public schools, and local districts decide at what grade health education is taught.

Though sex abuse of children is declining, the list of victims each year is long.

Substantiated cases of sexual abuse among children nationally has declined 40 percent since 1992, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Still, 89,500 children were victimized in 2000, the latest data available in the study.

The shortage of lessons about good and bad touch is a concern, especially to people like Rick Hogan, a Troy resident who was abused at the age of 13 by a Capuchin brother at a Catholic high school he attended in Wisconsin. Though he never received such a lesson, he thinks all children should.

“It makes so much sense for children’s own safety and well-being,” said Hogan, 44, who didn’t tell anyone about the abuse until he went into a treatment center for alcoholism when he was 31. “Anytime somebody touches them and they feel weird about it, they should tell someone.”

Ideally, parents should teach their children about inappropriate touching by another adult, experts say, but sometimes they don’t because it’s a sensitive topic. Lessons in school also are needed because sometimes the parent is the perpetrator, said Rochester Hills resident Pam Drake, who also never learned in her Catholic school what to do about the incest she grew up with. Perhaps, she said, it might have made a difference.

“It would have put us out in the open to be more free to talk about it,” said Drake, 50. “It was the secrecy that really perpetrated it.”

Social ill

The clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic church is only a microcosm of the sexual abuse children suffer in the larger society, experts say. The abuse often turns children into adults with low self-esteem, difficulty forming relationships and establishing trust with others, among other problems. This social ill prompted prevention programs for children in schools during the 1980s.

It’s never been scientifically proven that these programs thwart sexual abuse of children because of the underreporting of the crime, said David Finkelhor, who has been studying the problems of child victimization and child maltreatment since 1977.

But there have been studies that show kids exposed to these programs are able to implement the skills to foil abusers and are morely likely to disclose to someone what had occurred and feel good about what they had done.

“There are reasons to believe these are potentially effective,” said Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “They’re not highly expensive or burdensome to implement. They are definitely worthwhile as part of comprehensive approach to preventing child sexual abuse.”

Fighting sexual abuse

The Archdiocese of Detroit says it is implementing a comprehensive approach to combatting sexual abuse, and children who attend Catholic schools will learn these lessons in the near future.

The Archdiocese, like so many other dioceses across the country, are focusing on teaching adults first how to recognize a potential child molester. This is a new approach to dealing with child sexual abuse because it takes the burden off children and places it instead onto the adult, said Mary Eckert, the archdiocese’s compliance coordinator.

“For too long, we’ve told kids don’t talk to strangers as opposed to it’s adults’ responsibility to have constant supervision,” Eckert said.

The state also wants schools to teach children about good and bad touch in health education classes, but that subject sometimes gets pushed into older grades because reading, state tests and other core subjects take precedence.

“It’s a health risk that children face,” said Merry Stanford, health education consultant for the Michigan Department of Education. “Understanding how to avoid or how to report this can impact their safety, and their learning, in significant ways.”

Some people may feel that these type of programs should be taught to children now, more than ever, because of the heightened awareness of child sexual abuse following the church’s clergy abuse scandal, said Spatafora, the teacher who has presented the Safety Bear program in Metro Detroit Catholic and public schools since 1989. But she disagrees.

“It’s not more important more than ever,” said Spatafora, a Pleasant Ridge resident. “It’s not a new phenomenon in our society. This can happen anywhere to any child. It’s always been important.”

You can reach Kim Kozlowski at (313) 222-2024


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