In the excitement surrounding the beginning of a new school year, it’s easy to forget about the basics of keeping kids safe while they are there. To help prevent abuse in schools and in the community, it is important for everyone to be informed about what is appropriate and not appropriate behavior among teachers, staff, parents and students.
Statistically speaking, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys will be a victim of childhood sexual abuse(1). Experts agree, though, that the real numbers are far greater, since most childhood sexual abuse still goes unreported. In Illinois, Erin’s Law requires that all public schools implement child-focused sexual abuse prevention education that:
- Teaches students in grades pre-K through 12th grade age-appropriate information about how to recognize child sexual abuse and tell a trusted adult
- Requires school personnel to be informed about child sexual abuse
- Provides parents with information on the warning signs of child sexual abuse, plus any needed assistance, referrals or resources to support victims and their families
JCFS Chicago’s Safer Schools, now in its sixth year, engages Jewish day schools administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and students in education and training about healthy relationships, handling accusations or disclosures of abuse or inappropriate behavior, and corresponding legal responsibilities. The program offers an integrated, efficient way to weave the concepts of healthy relationships and safety into the school's institutional structure. Components of the program have been implemented in 11 Orthodox Jewish elementary and high schools under the Associated Talmud Torahs umbrella. This year, Safer Schools will be expanding beyond the Orthodox community at seven JCC early childhood centers.
Safer Schools programming is based on a model that involves the whole community. School administrators as well as teachers and staff are trained by JCFS Chicago experts, followed by parents and students. JCFS Chicago offers education for parents to learn about child safety, understand who might abuse children and the grooming process, positive communication with children, behaviors to watch out for and steps to take to keep children safe. No community is immune to abuse, and the goal is to create a community that cannot allow abuse to happen. Inappropriate touching can have severe emotional and psychological effects on a child that can last a lifetime.
Through Safer Schools, JCFS Chicago provides the Safety Kid program for students in preschool-5th grade in Jewish day schools. Students are educated about personal safety and empowered with the language and tools they need to keep themselves safe. Lessons about understanding boundaries and abuse are also offered to middle school students.
Safety Kid student education is delivered by volunteer “safety moms and dads,” increasing the capacity of the whole community to recognize and respond to abuse. Parent volunteers are trained and educated to serve as ambassadors for the program, so they can share their knowledge with other parents about abuse and how to prevent it. "It’s about working together as a community, across the religious spectrum, to put forth our very best hishtadlus (effort) when it comes to preventing abuse in our own community,” says Mindi Zissman, a safety mom who presents the ‘ABCDs of Safety’ to the young students. A letter to parents is sent home, reinforcing what children learned in Safety Kid, along with tips for talking with kids about body safety and the importance of supervision in the home.
One mom, Sarah, recently shared a story about being vigilant while out in her community. Sarah and her family were in a local coffee shop when a man from their shul, who was sitting at another table, offered her children lollipops. The children knew to Check First (the C in safety kid) with their mom. Sarah understood this in a new way. In the past she may have thought only about whether she wanted them to have the candy, but now she knows that it’s important to teach her children to check first before accepting gifts, even from people they know, because she understands the grooming process.
"The ultimate goal is to keep kids safe. We can give kids the tools and language to prevent abuse, but it takes adults in the community, too, to raise awareness, and set-up safe environments and prevention practices. It’s part of the fabric of the community now," said Betsy Lazerow, M.Ed., Coordinator of JCFS Chicago Community Services Education Initiatives.