4 Ways to Address Child Sexual Abuse in Your Campus Community
Here’s how your school can prevent and respond to child sexual abuse, whether it’s perpetrated by adults or students.
Child sexual abuse is a significant and recurring problem that touches every community in America. Experts generally agree that one in 10 children will experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. With children making up one-fourth of the U.S. population, that calculates to a staggering number of new victims each year. The effect of sexual abuse on children is equally sobering, with the victims having three or more times greater chance of substance abuse or psychological issues later in life.
One reason why child sexual abuse has such a devastating effect on the minds of many (but not all) of its victims is because it is an act of betrayal – betrayal by an adult or another child who the victim needed and believed cared about them. Further, when the abuse takes place in a setting where the victim is under the care and custody of an institution, the community often feels betrayed, believing, as it often does with violence prevention, that the institution’s leaders should have anticipated such a predictable problem.
Schools, particularly middle schools and high schools, are highly probable settings for sexual abuse, yet the primary safety focus remains on active shooters and other forms of violence against students and staff. However, focus on violence is driven more by fear than fact.
For example, between 2011 and 2015, approximately 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults upon students were reported to police, while during that same period, 89 people were killed in school shootings. Further, the actual number of sexual abuse incidents is likely higher, since only about 60% of victims disclose their abuse. So, we know that more children than are reported experience the negative effects of abuse later in their lives.
One reason that abuse is so frequent has do to with the number of potential adult molesters. With regards to adults who abuse children, studies suggest that about 5%-6% of the adult population has a sexual interest in children. That is about 13 million to 14 million adults who could be a major threat, compared to less than 1 million adults on the National Sex Offender Registry. Further, surveys of adults show that number to be higher when the adult being surveyed is told there would be no chance of being caught or punished.
A second reason that child sexual abuse is so high is that approximately half of the molesters are students, making protective measures imposed on adults, such as background checks and one-on-one rules, largely irrelevant in half the cases. In some regards, this is same kind of “insider threat” that all schools face when trying to prevent weapons violence.
All this is not to say that schools have an unsolvable problem on their hands. As someone who assesses schools for a wide range of risks, including both violence and sexual abuse, I believe that child sexual abuse is more preventable than the average adult realizes. It can be reduced significantly if certain things are put in place and kept in place, such as:
- better staff screening methods
- clearer rules for interaction between individuals
- minimizing the locations where abuse could predictably occur
- informing more stakeholders about the reality and long-term effects of abuse
- making it easy to report even the smallest red flag
- having a better process for a school to sift through the many red flags, concerns and complaints that come with these changes.
Previously, I mentioned two reasons why abuse persists in schools, i.e., problematic adults and problematic students. Yet the perpetrators are seldom, if ever, caught in the actual act of abuse because there is rarely any evidence. However, there is an equally important third reason that abuse persists: problematic third parties who are the bystanders to the abuse.
As a consultant who has observed for more than 25 years how normal adults respond to the challenge of preventing child sexual abuse and as an expert witness examining cases of child sexual abuse within organizations, I can say that the average adult’s attitudes about child sexual abuse present the greatest reason child sexual abuse exists on such a large scale. Most adults are so baffled by the challenge of preventing these assaults that they typically do nothing, putting children and institutions at even more risk. This is also why society largely relies on the victims to come forward and disclose their abuse and name their molester, which often occurs years after events have taken place.
However, there are four things that adults can do that could be a significant game changer for preventing child sexual abuse, particularly in well-defined environments, such as schools. However, a word of caution, these four actions can be difficult to do and remember:
- Accept that “nice” people molest children. Child molesters often succeed because they have made themselves invaluable to not only the victim, but to the school itself. More often than not, sexual predators are individuals who are liked and respected by others. These are people who appear to be helpful when they are being harmful.
- Understand the predictable behavioral patterns of sexual molesters. One of the most surprising things I have learned as an expert witness examining cases of abuse is the similarity between virtually all child molesters, regardless of their age, gender, education or sophistication. Child molesters appear to follow the same playbook, year after year, which gives responsible adults a huge advantage over them. Typically, these predators progress in three stages:
- “Targeting,” where they position themselves in settings where they can observe potential victims up close and the predator can establish their helpfulness
- “Grooming,” where they create a physical comfort and emotional dependency by the victim
- “Control” where they not only sexually abuse the victim, but also convince the victim to hide the abuse from others.
- Learn ways to intervene when rules are disregarded or something doesn’t seem quite right. Sexual predators, like all predators in nature, are cunning and will probe and test the rules to see what will or will not be enforced. Skilled molesters eventually come to believe they are above reproach and will be highly defensive when challenged. However, because they are typically smart and observant, they tend to move on to other opportunities where boundary violations are not tolerated.
- Connect the dots. Child sexual abuse flourishes where adults do not openly discuss it as a serious concern. This means that schools, like all youth-serving organizations, must openly acknowledge child sexual abuse is an ongoing threat and discuss solutions and improvements in this area much as they would for other types of violence prevention. The overall problem of abuse, as well as the problematic individuals (adults and students) who are the drivers of abuse must not be ignored or swept under the rug.
In this article, I have identified a range of strategies that all require some degree of change – changing rules, changing attitudes and changes to the campus. The easy part of all this is that virtually all strategies to prevent child sexual abuse within organizations, cost little to nothing to implement. The challenging part is that none of these changes are likely to take place without the full commitment of a school’s leadership. Additionally, those changes are not likely to remain in place and effective without oversight by the school’s leadership.
Les Nichols is a school safety and security consultant and expert witness in child injury cases. He recently served on a team of reviewers for the for the Maryland Guidelines and Best Practices for the Design, Assessment and Modification of Physical Facilities and Spaces to Reduce Opportunities for Child Sexual Abuse (2020). Les can be reached at email@example.com.