BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont’s public schools will be expected to play a greater role in preventing and reporting child sexual abuse, under a new law that passed the Legislature this year.
Under the state’s new sexual abuse response system, schools will have to teach sexual abuse prevention as part of their health curriculum and school employees will be required to receive training on how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and know what to do if the warning signs are visible.
Many schools already train their staffs and include lessons within the health program, but the new law now mandates that all schools address the issue at some point during the school year.
The Department of Education and the Department for Children and Families are working together to provide resources for the schools, and DCF Commissioner Steve Dale said the law gives sexual abuse prevention the same level of importance as other health topics.
"Since the 1980s, more schools have been doing something to prevent sexual abuse, but over the years, it would often depend on the expertise of the health educators that were there at the time," Dale said. "Some schools have programs and others do not. This law takes away the voluntary aspect of teaching this in the schools.
Under the new law, which was written partially in response to the Brooke Bennett case and has become known as Act One, the two state agencies are required to provide technical
School boards will also have to ensure that the training be included in employee orientation.
The program materials will become available this year, and schools are required to adopt the curriculum and start training their staff in time for the 2011 school year.
Schools can develop their own lessons, but the issue must be included in health curriculum at all grade levels, and staff must receive the training.
Dale stressed that both parts of the law are equally important.
Age appropriate lessons might encourage a child to speak up, and training staff could help prevent further abuse.
"Sexual abuse does happen," said Dale. "The big message for adults is that they should trust their guts. The most important thing we can do is to create a trusting and open relationship so kids know they can talk about this."
Sen. Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, was a sponsor of the bill. He said the law was written to make it easier for children and teachers to talk about the issue.
"One of the biggest challenges of ending sexual abuse is breaking the silence," Shumlin said. "The intent of this bill is to raise the consciousness, especially of young men, and let them know how destructive this is."
Shumlin said sexual abuse prevention deserves the same attention as anti-smoking, good nutrition and cutting down on drug and alcohol use, in the school’s health curricula.
"Our teachers are role models and they have access to our children every day," said Shumlin. "We have learned that the most important piece of prevention is educating early, and that was the goal of this bill."
Vermont-NEA President Martha Allen said that even though teachers are already required to report abuse, the new law will help keep the issue front and center and provide further help in stopping the problem.
"The law’s enhanced instruction to students and the stepped up efforts to educate all adults in schools about how to identify sexual abuse is another useful tool in the abuse prevention toolbox," Allen said. "Nothing is more reprehensible to our members than the sexual abuse of children. Our members already instinctively protect their students, with or without new laws. We urge all adults, in all settings, to ensure our children are safe from all forms of abuse."
Linda Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, applauded the law, although she said the Legislature did not include enough funding to fully train school staff.
Organizations like hers will make resources available to schools, though Johnson said she will work next year to get more funding in place.
"This establishes a unified approach, and says that, as a state, we are doing something," Johnson said. "For some children, they spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents and teachers have a very significant role to play.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.