Program Spotlight: Member centers in Connecticut create K-12 prevention programs to fulfill new public act

By Charlotte Poth, The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education

In June of 2014, Connecticut took a major step in the direction of preventing sexual violence upon passing Public Act 14-196. This statute mandates that all regional and local school districts in the state must implement K-12 sexual assault and abuse prevention and awareness programs in their schools.

The Act addresses the issue on two fronts. First, we’re actually going to talk about it. Outreach efforts to schools in the past have proven that sexual violence is an uncomfortable reality, with squeamish administrators declaring, “That doesn’t happen in our community,” or, “We wouldn’t want to upset the parents.” This contributes to a bubble of denial that fuels rape culture. That’s the scary truth. Neglecting to have conversations around sexual violence keeps the issue wrapped in a shroud of stigma and shame.

Second, Public Act 14-196 asks for solutions to the problems presented. From recognizing covert sexism as a gateway to violence to identifying the toxicity of gender roles, we have to start analyzing social norms as early as possible in the classroom. So that maybe someday in the future, there won’t be vulgar signs above frat houses during freshman orientation week or chants yelled at midnight in front of dorms promoting rape. If we want to prevent college sexual assault, then we need to think further back than freshman year for education to begin. We have to start in kindergarten, if not earlier.

Fostering empathy and respect in our youth and teaching them to identify feelings and build and maintain healthy boundaries needs to become as essential to K-12 education as teaching children to read and write.

After the taskforce comprised of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the Connecticut Board of Education, The Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, and many of its member centers created the standards within the framework of the mandate in 2015, it was time to craft the programs that would meet these performance indicators.

The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education was selected by The Alliance to head the working group comprised of the eight other member centers spanning across the state. When a mandate such as this passes, the question becomes: How do we create comprehensive programs that will honor Connecticut’s diversity and reach children with differing backgrounds and experiences? As we know, when it comes to prevention, language is everything. 

The first step was to get all of us in a room together to pore over the language used in our respective programs. Words that seemed simple took on very complex meanings. Students in our service area respond well to the term “trusted adult,” but other programs found that this term would be scoffed at. Trusted adult? For some children, that concept is a luxury.  We couldn’t use the word “house” because some children don’t live in one. Some children don’t have any sort of home at all. “Where you live” was our best option. The vast inequalities of the American public school system were quickly exposed during our first meeting. As advocates, we know all too well the risks that poverty exposes children to. 

We had to write programs for children who come to school with full lunchboxes, and those who arrive with empty bellies. The truth is, socioeconomics must be deeply considered when crafting programs like this. 
Think about a child being groomed for abuse by someone who gives them food when there isn’t any, or gives them money when the threat of eviction looms over their head. Or what about a child who is being abused by the breadwinner in the house? What if they tell? What happens then? We may teach children that they are the boss of their body and that it isn’t okay for anyone to touch them in an unhealthy and unsafe way, but we needed to understand the many reasons why this message may fall short. When it comes to the issue of sexual assault and abuse, the layers and complexities are as deep as it gets. Every shade of grey had to be considered and examined under a microscope. Only then would we truly understand how to reach as many students as possible. 

The Center’s existing programs were selected as the baseline the working group would start from. Already comprehensive and evidence-informed, the task was to enhance these programs to meet all of the outlined performance indicators. We looked closely at what other states are doing in prevention education. Vermont has been leading the way for decades, and we turned to them to gauge how interactive our programs would need to be. We observed how they catered to a variety of learning styles and crafted our programs with the same considerations in mind. 

When it comes to best practice in the field of sexual violence prevention in the United States, few programs exist. There is a great need for a K-12 prevention model to be created and subsequently measured to determine efficacy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been on the hunt for comprehensive prevention programs throughout the nation, yet few exist for them to actually put to the test. 

Therefore, when it came time to evaluate programs with proven outcomes, we had to look across the pond. The Netherlands has comprehensive K-12 programs created by Rutgers International, a sexuality research institute based there. For many years, The Netherlands has designated a week out of the school year called “Spring Fever,” where students receive sex education and prevention programming. These programs address the rigid gender norms and standards created by the media in tandem with the need for communication, empathy and respect in all relationships. Students are given tools on how to express their feelings and needs, along with recognizing and respecting the needs of others.

According to the World Bank, the Netherlands has one of the lowest teen pregnancy and STI transmission rates in the world, although statistics on sexual violence still need to be assessed. As we know all too well, relying on reporting statistics in gauging sexual assault rates is a flawed measurement system, seeing as so many assaults go unreported or dismissed by authorities. When it comes to measuring sexual assault and abuse prevention, the Netherlands still has some work to do. Many will be watching and taking notes, hoping to learn from the successes their programs are predicted to achieve with the next generation. 

Our programs are rooted in challenging harmful social norms that lay the groundwork for sexual violence to flourish. Much like the Dutch model, we focus on teaching communication skills and enhancing student ability to decipher non-verbal cues. Empathy, respect, and healthy relationship dynamics are key components of every program. At age-appropriate levels, the grooming process is dissected, so that students learn to identify manipulation tactics and the motivations behind them. The goal of these programs is to present tools for disclosure and minimize self blame. We wanted children to know it is never their fault if this happens to them. 

Words can take on nuanced meanings in this work, and some can become loaded and blaming. Therefore, it is pivotal that these programs are delivered by trained professionals who fully understand the issue. Asking teachers to facilitate programs like these is potentially dangerous, for there is no guarantee delivery will not be marred by personal bias and false information. Utilizing member centers is not only a sound fiscal choice for schools, but it also gives students a neutral and trauma-informed 
advocate to potentially disclose to. Advocates can ensure that proper protocols are enacted upon disclosure, and that the child is protected from continually being asked to re-tell their story. 

Now that a prevention model has been created for member centers to implement across the state of Connecticut, the next task ahead of us is to create a concrete measuring tool to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs. We are hopeful that Connecticut could be a leading state in setting the standard for what sexual assault and abuse prevention education should look like. It is our wish that many more states will follow with K-12 legislation, and America can soon be on its way to changing rape culture nationwide.

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