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Maine schools step up efforts to prevent sexual abuse of young children

School Bus (WGME)

PORTLAND, Maine (BDN) -- Elementary schools throughout the state will spend the 2018-19 academic year implementing a new policy to improve their ability to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse.

Prompted by a 2015 law that required a new model to be implemented by July 1, 2016, the Department of Education and the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault ( MECASA) have created a model policy for school administrators to adopt this year. The policy also provides pre-kindergarten through grade 5 students with age-appropriate child sexual abuse prevention education.

Based on that model, a series of training sessions for administrators and other school personnel will be held across the state. Those educators will then train their own staff members, from teachers to janitors, Cara Courchesne, communications director for MECASA, said Wednesday.

“We wanted people to be talking about ‘bodies and boundaries,’ and talking about what is ‘safe, healthy and hygienic,’” Courchesne said. “That, when you think about it, covers a really broad range of stuff. That can be anything from talking about the difference between secrets and surprises.”

“We know that a lot of kids are abused by family members and friends of family, who they know, and are often told to keep it a secret, so talking with children about the difference between surprises that are short-term and exciting, versus secrets that are longer-term and undetermined and could hurt somebody,” she said. “These are concepts to embed throughout the school year to make sure kids are understanding this across a range of experiences.”

Children will discuss age-appropriate, broad concepts that parents can then learn about through a website and find a comfortable place to start talking about more serious issues, Courchesne said.

Among other resources, the Children’s Safety Partnership provides information to respond to questions from school personnel and administrators — and parents — about how caregivers can talk to children. It contains basic information about child sexual abuse, as well as links to information about how to keep children safe.

Also part of the program, “many, many, many books” were purchased for libraries throughout the state to facilitate discussions with children.

The concepts, she said, are central to sexual violence prevention and sexual abuse prevention.

“This policy is about protecting and supporting children,” Susan Berry, health education and health promotion coordinator for the Maine Department of Education, said in a release. “Child sexual abuse prevention requires the efforts of everyone: families, schools and communities. This policy and the additional resources address the roles we all play to keep children safe.”

The law was not funded, so sexual assault support services staff redirected some funding to train educators and worked with the DOE to have the model policy in place by this school year, Courchesne said.

“The idea is to embed it in everything, recognizing that these are core concepts,” she said. “We hope teachers will look at their lesson plans over the year and see where they can incorporate [discussion] … our hope is that we’re providing them with enough material so they don’t think we’re just dropping it into their laps.”

“If a bus driver notices a kid is acting differently and [the driver] has been trained to notice signs of sexual abuse, they’re much more likely to make a report,” Courchesne said.

The model policy also provides resources such as how schools can screen potential employees.

“The majority of people who commit sexual abuse are not on the [state’s sexual offender] registry, so searching the registry is good, but [administrators say], ‘What else do I do?’ Well, here’s that information,” she said.

While the law does not provide consequences for schools that do not implement the policy, Courchesne said the benefits of such a program are obvious — most notably, “keeping kids safe.”

“If a high profile incident were to happen, one would hope they’ve already put this program in place, so they’re best equipped to deal with it,” she said.

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 1-800-871-7741.

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