Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse in Schools

by John McKiggan

While the majority of adults working in schools across Canada are unequivocally dedicated to making schools a safe, positive environment for children, there are those who seek to use their position of power for more nefarious purposes. Tragically some teachers have used the positions of trust and authority to abuse the children in their care. The survivors of childhood teacher sexual abuse, often carrying the burden and shame of these encounters for the rest of their lives.

In 2014, Statistics Canada conducted a general social survey of Canadians which included a sample size of approximately 33,000 individuals over the age of 15. Specific questions asked respondents to self-report abuse taking place in their childhood (before they turned 15). The results revealed that 8 percent of the respondents self-reported childhood sexual abuse — a figure that corresponds to approximately 2.4 million Canadians having been sexually abused as children.

Survivors: An Underrepresented Minority

Unfortunately, because of social stigmas against reporting childhood sexual abuse, this figure is thought to be an underrepresentation of the number of sexual abuse survivors across Canada, as it only encompasses those who will willing to disclose their status as a survivor to representatives of Statistics Canada.

Professionals who work with survivors of childhood abuse are of the view that reported incidents of child abuse represent just the tip of the iceberg.

As outlined by the Canadian Center for Child Protection , there were approximately 750 cases of sexual offences against a minimum of 1,272 children between 1997 and 2017 that took place in a school or similar education facility. The true number of children who were sexually abused at school during this time may never be fully known, as this encompassed those documented through disciplinary action against educators, media sources and criminal records.

Calls to establish protocols not only amongst staff to hold one another accountable for inappropriate or predatory behaviors, but to allow students and survivors the security to report these incidents as well, are a key to preventing childhood sexual abuse from occurring in an environment where they spend the majority of their time.

Recognizing Inappropriate and Predatory Behaviors

Children and educators often form close bonds with one another, and typically this is not a cause for alarm. An educator who is passionate about their field and wishes to teach children valuable life skills and the knowledge they need to find their own paths often see the fruits of their labours as these children mature into brilliant young adults.

However, for parents, colleagues and students alike, it is important to recognize when an educator’s “passion” for teaching may be approaching a dangerous and highly inappropriate point. A small minority of teachers seek to use their position of power as a means of exerting authority over children, and may “groom” them into trusting adults who will later take advantage of them.

The purpose of “grooming” a future candidate for sexual abuse includes:

  • Manipulating perceptions of other adults around the child;
  • Manipulating the child to become a cooperating participant, therefore reducing the likelihood of a disclosure and increasing the likelihood of repeated return to the abuser;
  • Reduce the chances of abuse being detected; and
  • Reduce the chances of a child being believed if disclosure occurs.

In approximately 70 percent of instances of childhood sexual abuse in schools, grooming was the primary tactic used to gain a child’s (and sometimes, their parents’) trust to a degree that they could be comfortably left alone with the child for extended periods of time. Outside of school and school-sponsored functions, a teacher should never spend time with students in a casual social setting.

Recognizing when boundaries are being crossed (or violated) is key to stopping sexual abuse before it occurs—or stopping it as soon as possible. If you suspect that a child’s teacher or colleague is acting inappropriately, attempting to maintain social relationships with students outside of school, or is fabricating excuses to spend prolonged periods of time with children, report them to the principal immediately.

While boundary crossing may be an instance of poor judgment on the teacher’s part, it is better to have disciplinary action and coaching occur before something tragic occurs.

What Can Be Done to Address Childhood Sexual Abuse in Schools?

Unfortunately, the consequences of childhood sexual abuse can be seen throughout the rest of a survivor’s life, and may include long-lasting emotional and mental distress, clinical depression, as well as feelings of shame, worthlessness and anxiety over what has happened to them. One survivor interviewed by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, when confronting their abuser, stated:

“My mind will be forever scarred. You took my childhood and my hope for happiness. I went from a child to an adult in a matter of moments and there is no way back.”

The most important way to ensure that the number of childhood sexual abuse instances falls is to allow survivors a means of disclosing their abuse discreetly, transparently and without fear of repercussion. If a survivor is coerced or otherwise threatened into compliance, there may be a reluctance to disclose the abuse out of fear of retaliation.

Teachers are typically required by both provincial/territorial law, as well as policies in their respective teachers’ association’s codes, to report any instance of suspected sexual abuse. Students and teachers alike should be educated on the mediums through which they can report instances of suspected or confirmed sexual abuse.

Through programs such as in-service training, schoolwide seminars and providing parental resources on recognizing potentially abusive behavior, major steps can be easily taken to lay the groundwork of policies that will guarantee the protection of future generations.

Need More Information?

It can be incredibly difficult for abuse survivors to talk about what happened to them. Whether it stems from the trauma of the incident, a fear of retaliation or a sense of deep shame that the abuse ever occurred in the first place, pain and anxiety following sexual abuse can create a silence that lasts a lifetime and traps survivors in their most painful memories.

But remaining silent protects the abusers and those that enabled them. With 1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males reporting sexual abuse before age 17, ending the cycle of abuse starts with one thing—speaking up.

That’s why we wrote Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims. We hope that by reading our resource guide, abuse survivors can learn about their legal options confidentially, within the privacy of their homes. Seeking help for yourself—and helping others—starts with breaking the silence.

Interested in a free copy of our guide? Contact us or call us today to discuss your case and receive a free copy of Breaking the Silence: The Survivor’s Guide to Abuse Compensation Claims.

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