“Child exploitation prevention is one of our missions and we originally thought we would be doing education in the community and with caregivers, but the more we learned the more we realized that a lot of times the kids that need it most are going to be those ones … parents are working a lot and wouldn’t have time to go and attend an educational thing for parents,” said Pamela Lee, one of the co-founders and president of PREP. “We though we just really needed to talk to the kids directly.”
After searching for the right program, Lee said she found the “Power over Predators” curriculum.
“Power over Predators” is targeted towards middle school aged students and can be followed through high school. It consists of three 45-minute lessons that tackle some of the major issues facing kids as they navigate their way through the online social media landscape.
“It covers online exploitation, unhealthy relationships, abuse, suicide, cyber bullying … the majority of the big topics that kids that age are or could be encountering,” Lee said.
The curriculum has been growing and evolving along with the flow of predatory behavior for the past 15 years. It uses real examples of actual encounters to illustrate the warning signs kids should be looking for while interacting with unknown persons, and even friends on the internet.
“They’re going to hear stories from other kids who were approached online and invited to go meet in person and who were introduced to the idea of sex and, ‘it would be really great to have sex because I love you and that’s what you do when you love someone,’” Lee explained. “Some of it could be shocking to some kids, but to other kids it’s going to be child’s play because they’re way beyond that with things that they see online.”
As messenger services on social media networks continue to grow in popularity as a means for young people to communicate with one another, predators continue to find new ways of “grooming” vulnerable users through those platforms.
“The idea is for kids to recognize the grooming language and the patterns and just know that whatever new platforms there are going to be, predators are going to be on those platforms,” Lee said.
“At any given time, there are 50,000 predators online looking for kids, looking to get kids to send them material that they then could use on child pornography websites, looking for ways to exploit, looking for kids to meet in person.”
Predators know how to lurk in those platforms to lure kids into thinking the interactions they’re having are harmless, and that when they have a natural gut reaction that something might be wrong, how to manipulate them that they’re overreacting, or have the wrong impression of the circumstances. As the technology advances and more and more platforms become available, it’s important that the “Power over Predators” curriculum stay up-to-date with what’s being used.
“In fact, it’s going to be changing a little bit next year, they update it on a fairly regular basis with whatever new information comes out,” Lee said. “I really like how they do this, and their ongoing efforts … they’re staying on top of current trends and patterns and things like that.”
But it’s not just predators looking to steal children away and traffic them, the curriculum also discusses inappropriate behavior between students themselves.
“It’s important that they understand repercussions of their own behavior not just what’s a danger to them,” Lee said. “You could have a really good kid, someone sends them a picture, and you think they’re just boys being boys, they pass the picture along – now they’re a criminal. … They need to know that that’s not acceptable behavior because if nobody tells them, how would they know?”
Lee said she hopes to grow the program and expand into other schools and other districts in order to ensure that these conversations are being had by all the children in the area, some of whom may already be actively targeted.
“We just had a sting operation over the Rally that several people right here in Spearfish got arrested for,” she said. “It is in our town, we’re not immune from it, so you just need to know what the risks are and be aware of the fact that they could be anywhere.”
The program is being taught by community volunteers involved with PREP, but Lee said she hopes it will become a tool that teachers can use and apply each year as students head into middle school.
“We wanted to do this as kind of our pilot year, see how it goes … and then we’ll figure out how do we get this to all grades every year,” she said.
As the PREP volunteers prepare to go into schools with this material, they also have been preparing for how to handle a student if he or she reports something they recognize from the lessons.
“What do we do if a child comes forward and says, ‘one of these things that you talked about is happening to me,’” Lee said. “We’ve been talking with the resource officer at the middle school to make sure they’re aware that this is happening that they’ll be available. There are processes in place to make sure parents are included … as long as it’s not about that parent.”
The program had its first lesson on Oct. 9, with another one scheduled for this Friday, and the final lesson on Oct. 23. Lee said parents can opt their children out of the program if they choose, but she would urge them to think twice before they do.
“The recommendation is that they don’t do that because it’s important for the kids to hear this,” she said.
In addition to fighting against child exploitation at one of its main sources, PREP also advocates for survivors who have come out on the other side and are transitioning out of being exploited or trafficked. They’ve partnered with Black Hills State University as well as several other advocacy organizations in the country, to provide education and housing for survivors here in the Black Hills.
“We’re always looking for volunteer and always looking for donations so we can do more and help more people,” Lee said. “Anybody who wants to get involved and help this cause, we welcome the help.”
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