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BRATTLEBORO — The Women’s Freedom Center is hosting an online forum to help people of all ages to spot the signs of a predator preparing a victim for sexual abuse.

“The first step in ending rape culture is knowing what the signs are and how somebody might be at risk,” said Shari, an advocate at the Women’s Freedom Center. All advocates at the center use first names only for their safety.

The Women’s Freedom Center is the local domestic and sexual violence organization serving both Windham County and southern Windsor County.

“We’re looking to highlight the red flags of ‘grooming’ across all ages,” said Shari.

Grooming is defined as the predatory process used to gain the trust of a potential victim. Shari said these premeditated and opportunistic tactics can be spotted if people know what to look for.

“This needs to be a conversation about universal precautions and universal empowerment,” she said.

The practice of grooming has received local attention recently due to revelations that a now retired teacher groomed and abused female students while working at Brattleboro Union High School.

“We are not specifically focusing on that because this type of behavior can and does happen every day and everywhere,” said Shari. “We are focusing on what are some of the signs that any of us might witness and how we can shift the outcome.”

Shari said it’s not just about a predator’s attention to children, though they are usually the most vulnerable. She said grooming can affect anyone of any age.

Predators typically target people who are unpopular or feeling unloved, people with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. Predators try to isolate their victims and cast themselves as a friend or mentor, someone who tries to comfort his or her victim with an “us against the world” attitude. Victims are also often unsupervised or have tenuous connections to their families or friends or are experiencing personal difficulties with their families or the world in general.

The free online community forum is scheduled for Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and is being co-hosted by Brooks Memorial Library.

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To get the Zoom link, contact the Women’s Freedom Center at 802-257-7364, or call Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290.

Grooming is not only about the victim, said Shari, but also about the perpetrator, who grooms his or her own self image as a beneficial member of the community while also strategizing ways to use their manufactured image to both deflect attention from their activities as a “buffer of respectability” to deny any abuse allegations.

However, said Shari, abuse is not always as subtle as manipulative grooming.

“Many predators have also gotten away with blatant behavior for years, via the pandemic of rape culture itself, which pressures entire communities to keep quiet while pain is being caused,” she said.

During the community forum, participants will learn about grooming tactics and discuss signs parents should look for and how to explain them to their children and teens.

For those who are interested, the forum can be followed up with additional in-depth skill-building and age-specific “Bystander Empowerment” workshops, ideal for workplaces, faith communities, and social organizations.

The Women’s Freedom Center also hosts parent workshops for adults who want to learn how to protect children, as well as youth workshops to offer skills, knowledge and resources to young people so they can protect themselves.

“These are not strangers committing these crimes,” said Shari. “More than 80 percent are known to the victim in some way.”

On Nov. 19, the Women’s Freedom Center is hosting an in-person “Survivor Gathering” for people who have experienced domestic or sexual violence.

The outdoor gathering will start at 5 p.m. and will feature a bonfire and is free and confidential; sharing or joining in quiet activities is entirely optional. To reserve your spot and get more information, call 802-257-7364.

For more information, visit www.womensfreedomcenter.net. For those who need help immediately, an advocate can be reached 24 hours at 802-254-6954.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.