CLEVELAND — Even on the most normal, pandemic-free school days, the safety and well-being of children in our community are threatened by child abuse.
But what happens when there is a disruption to traditional learning environments due to a pandemic? According to a cleveland.com article, reports of child abuse in Cuyahoga County in April and May had decreased by approximately 49% over the same time last year. However, many child abuse professionals at Cleveland Rape Crisis Center and other children’s service organizations fear that child sexual abuse may be on the rise as a result of stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As school resumes this month, some children are being reunited with educators who play a vital role in identifying, reporting and preventing child sexual abuse. Educators are often heroes to our children and have a unique opportunity to advocate, as well as provide programs and services that can help children and strengthen families.
Cleveland Rape Crisis Center (CRCC) recognizes that preventing child abuse is a community effort and we are here for our educators as they take on the herculean task of supporting children beyond their educational needs. Here are five suggestions for educators to keep open communication and protect students:
1. Look for any changes in behavior: Our experiences at CRCC show that if there are changes in behavior with a child, it could mean something is going on. If you have a talkative student who is suddenly quiet on Zoom calls, check in with them. If a student is frequently ill or often complains of head or stomach aches, check in with them. If a student is all of a sudden wearing inappropriate clothing, whether it be provocative or not appropriate for the season, check in with them.
2. Provide a platform for students to share something private: If students have anything they would like to share privately, identify a safe communication channel that students can use to disclose. It could be email, chat, phone or some other form of communication. Sharing this channel and reminding students every time you meet is a great way to keep communication open.
3. Develop a safe word for students: If the abuser is in the house or a student feels unsafe, they can use the safe word to share with the teacher that something is going on. The teacher can contact the authorities or follow up appropriately. Either way, it is a discreet way of notifying the teacher that something is not right.
4. Learn more about preventing child sexual abuse via these resources: Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is proud to offer The Stewards of Children training curriculum. This sexual abuse prevention training program is the only adult-focused, evidence-informed curriculum proven to increase knowledge and attitudes about child sexual abuse and change behaviors promoting protective factors. Additionally, we offer Body Safety Education, which teaches students about “good touches” and “bad touches,” and empowers children and adults to prevent child sexual abuse. We also have a number of suggested children’s books available.
5. Familiarize yourself with the appropriate way to report sexual abuse: While there may be an internal school reporting process, it’s also important to report any suspicions to the appropriate authorities (Department of Children and Family Services or Child Protective Services). If you need help navigating the reporting process, one of our advocates can assist you.
We thank all of our educators for the work they are doing to educate and protect our students. If you’re not sure how to help your students, ask us. If something seems off with a student, check in. It could be the lifeboat they have been looking for.
Kirsti Mouncey is chief program officer of Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.
Need crisis help or advice? The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center hotline can be reached by phone or text at (216) 619-6192 or (440) 423-2020.
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