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Resources are available to help combat child sexual abuse

As students headed back to school this month, staff at one Oregon high school were in the classroom themselves for training on child sexual abuse prevention.

It's a topic no one likes to think is relevant to them, but statistics say otherwise, says Maria Ross, prevention specialist with ABC House in Albany,  one of 21 non-profit child abuse prevention centers in Oregon.

"These problems historically are very shrouded in secrecy and silence," Ross said. "Every school and every community is dealing with these types of incidents, but we often don't know about them. This is one of those times when we know about them."

The training at Philomath, for both licensed and classified staff, is in response to a hazing incident reported at a football team summer camp in July. Since then, criminal citations were issued against six players and a volunteer coach.

The curriculum was developed by Darkness to Light, a national non-profit organization. Its mission is to educate adults to prevent and recognize child abuse and react responsibly to reports of inappropriate behavior.

Other training programs are also available for Oregon schools. Safe Schools, offered through the Property and Casualty Coverage for Education (PACE) insurance pool, provides online training opportunities for staff on a variety of topics, including bullying, hazing and child abuse.

OSBA staff, upon request, will also provide on-site training around these issues, said Lisa Freiley, OSBA staff counsel and administrator of the PACE program. Such requests should be sent to

Districts need to take these issues seriously, Freiley said, not only because of potential legal liability but also to make sure students are protected.
"We have a duty to supervise kids and make sure all kids have a safe place to be," she said. "We are also responsible for teaching students what behaviors are and are not appropriate and encouraging them to report situations that are not safe.  When administrators hear about inappropriate behaviors, it is imperative an investigation take place."

Districts also are concerned about the financial impact of sex abuse accusations.  An independent investigation alone can cost up to $5,000, said Jens Jensen, property casualty claims manager for PACE.  If litigation ensues, the cost to defend an allegation can be as much as $100,000 and considerably higher if the case goes to trial, he said.

"We find taking a proactive approach to these situations is best for several reasons," said Jensen. "Not only is there a financial exposure to the school district, but to the risk pool as well."

OSBA put together a Boundary Invasion Toolkit for districts last year to try to reduce the frequency of sex-abuse cases, said Jensen. The toolkits provide a packet of materials designed to identify and prevent sexual abuse before it takes place between school employees and students.  A copy of the toolkit is available on the PACE website.

The topic of sexual abuse prevention is a priority for the Ford Family Foundation. The organization is funding three-year renewal grants to 11 nonprofits in 16 counties in Oregon and northern California to train adults in the Darkness to Light curriculum.

There's a sense of urgency fueled by some staggering statistics, said Mary Beattie, program coordinator for the foundation's child prevention initiative.
  •  Over 10,000 Oregon children were confirmed victims of abuse in 2013, nearly half under the age of 6.
  • There were almost 28,000 investigations of suspected child abuse in Oregon in 2013. More than twice as many reports of suspected abuse were made in the same year.
  • Child sexual abuse victims are more likely to drop out of school, experience more teen pregnancies, depression, and even suicide.
"People will say, 'I don't know anyone who has been abused,'" Beattie said, "but the person next to you says, 'Yes, you do.’"

Crook County School District offered the Darkness to Light training to staff last year. Oregon City, Coos Bay and Jefferson County are among districts offering the training as part of their staff inservice activities this fall.

The goal is to create a network of people working to prevent child abuse, said Beattie. Ford Foundation hopes to train more than 20,000 people by March 2018, plus prepare more than 100 facilitators to carry on the training in their own communities.

"We know it's prevalent and how devastating it is," said Beattie.  "This is a way to mobilize folks and really start looking at our youth protection policies."

Darkness to Light encourages every community to educate 5 percent of its population about child abuse prevention, which will provide a foundation for widespread social change. They say this will create tipping points, which occur when issues gain momentum and a relatively small amount of people can effect change on a societal level.

The two-hour curriculum includes survivor stories, guidance from experts and practical solutions that adults can adopt to protect children in their community, said Beattie. It outlines five steps:
  1. Learn the facts. One in 10 children will be sexually abused before the age of 18.
  2. Minimize opportunity. More than 80 percent of sexual abuse cases occur in isolated, one-on-one situations.
  3. Talk about it. Children often keep abuse a secret. Talk openly with them to prevent sexual abuse.
  4. Recognize the signs. Often the signs are emotional or behavioral, not physical.
  5. React responsibly. Learn how to offer support and report suspicion or discovery immediately.
While the training is focused on child sexual abuse prevention, many of the principles and strategies are applicable to other problems impacting youth, including bullying and hazing, said ABC House's Ross. For instance, guidance for making one-on-one situations safer include making encounters between adults and youth more observable and interruptible.

A large part of the training is about handling disclosures and how to respond if a student reveals instances of inappropriate behavior. Ross said the adults should assure the student that they believe him or her, that it's not their fault and not ask too many questions or leading questions.