Osten Applauds School Districts Beginning Implementation of Sexual Assault and Abuse Prevention Lessons
Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Assault: Advocates and educators highlight new guidelines as important step forward for state
As school districts across the state begin to implement programs to educate students about sexual assault and abuse prevention strategies, State Senator Cathy Osten (D-Sprague) is lauding the work of the organization and state agencies that worked to develop the guidelines following the initial passage of “Erin’s Law” in Connecticut in 2014.
Erin Merryn is a childhood sexual assault survivor and activist who is dedicated to seeing the law which bears her name passed in all 50 states. “Erin’s Law” requires age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education in grades Kindergarten through 12, as well as training school staff on the prevention of sexual abuse.
“It is critically important that we teach our children early on that sexual abuse is unacceptable, and that they have resources to help them if they are experiencing it or are witnessing it happening to another person,” said Sen. Osten, who championed the bill. “Experiencing sexual abuse during childhood—or at any time for that matter—is something that has long lasting impacts to the health and wellness of the victim for the rest of their life. This program will absolutely help children and educators to prevent and end childhood sexual abuse by reaching our kids where they are—in our schools.”
The guidelines, developed through a collaboration between the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, the Connecticut State Department of Education and the Department of Children and Families, are in response to a law that went into effect on October 1, 2016 that aims to help school districts empower students and staff to help end sexual violence.
An estimated one in five girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18.
PA 14-196, which was later amended to allow the state more time to prepare guidance for the districts, was passed in 2014 with the aim of preventing sexual assault and abuse by creating learning opportunities for school-aged children.
“Connecticut has taken a significant step forward in sexual violence prevention by ensuring our children begin at an early age to learn and practice communication skills and healthy interpersonal interactions,” said Laura Cordes, Executive Director of Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “Consistent sexual abuse prevention programing in grades K-12 is key to decreasing the number of people who perpetrate harm and, when necessary, will help communities intervene and support children and adolescents who are victimized.”
The guidance document, Statewide K-12 Sexual Assault & Abuse Prevention & Awareness Program Guidelines, incorporates input from educators, administrators, child sexual abuse experts and sexual assault victim advocates from around the state and includes considerations for school staff and administration, along with a list of resources that schools can use for professional development. In order to help formulate developmentally appropriate curricula for all ages, performance indicators defining what students should know and be able to do are provided for specific grade levels; Kindergarten, Grades 1-4, Grades 5-8, and Grades 9-12. In each grade cluster, standards for Sexual Health Education and the new Sexual Assault and Abuse Prevention and Awareness programs are listed, along with the goals for student lessons, including: describing safe and healthy environments, explaining the importance of setting and respecting personal boundaries, identifying trusted adults, expressing needs, wants, and emotions in a safe way, and taking action when students see someone being mistreated, harassed or abused.
“Sexual violence is a public health problem that affects the lives of thousands of people in the United States. The State Department of Education is proud to join the chorus of voices who, through awareness, prevention, and intervention, are spreading the message that sexual assault and abuse will not be tolerated,” said Commissioner of Education Dianna R. Wentzell. “These guidelines address this sensitive topic in ways that are developmentally and age-appropriate to ensure safe and healthy learning environments for all of our students.”
The guidelines also prepare teachers, staff, and administrators to appropriately support students who disclose that they have been sexually assaulted and to properly report sexual abuse. The guidelines suggest that faculty and staff use non-blaming language when discussing sexual assault with students, and focus their lessons on teaching students about healthy relationships and bystander intervention. In order to have a comprehensive response to sexual assault and abuse, the guidelines indicate that teachers, administrators, school social workers, counselors, and psychologists all work together to standardize their responses to student disclosures.
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz said the school-based prevention program is a good example of how the Department works with state and local organizations to use education and public health messaging to prevent abuse and neglect of children.
“The Department is committed to the principle that education and awareness are critical strategies for preventing abuse and neglect of children,” Commissioner Katz said. “This school-based prevention program is a tremendous example of how we can partner together to protect children.”
Before drafting implementation guidelines, a statewide survey was completed to see which types of prevention education programs were already in place in Connecticut. The results of the survey showed that some schools were already teaching their students about sexual assault prevention, but that more could be done. Westbrook Public Schools, and their Superintendent, Patricia Ciccone, were one of the districts that were ahead of the educational curve. “Westbrook Public Schools has always offered curriculum and lessons that add to our students’ social thinking skills and language toolkit to help them develop a clear sense of personal safety,” said Ciccone. “Seeing Connecticut prioritize this kind of programming in all schools across the state creates an exciting opportunity to train certified staff, help children learn and, more importantly, internalize positive messages about empathy, personal space and healthy relationships.”
Calls to The Alliance’s member programs from school districts seeking assistance in planning and implementation of in-school programming have increased since the release of the guidelines. Charlotte Poth, the Community Educator at The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford, one of The Alliance’s nine member programs, has already seen progress. “Many school districts who have never had programming like this before are implementing K-12 programs this year, and it’s incredible to see,” said Poth. “Studies have shown that for prevention education to be truly effective, it must be consistent throughout a child’s life. Having programs that build off of one another from grade to grade strengthens and reinforces the message.”
Poth believes that one of the most important components of the new programs is making people more comfortable talking about sexual assault and abuse. “If we can do that, and talk about this openly and honestly, then we will be better prepared to support survivors and their families and prevent further abuse.”
Numerous other agencies and departments are also prepared to assist schools in conforming with the new law, including the Connecticut Regional Education Service Centers, the Workforce Development Agency, the Department of Children and Families, and the State Department of Education.
The new implementation guidelines can be found online.