As an educator and the mother of a teenager, I was shocked and angry to hear that a high school teacher in my New Jersey neighborhood was arrested in September for sexually assaulting five male students. Recently we’ve seen stories of sexual assault charges brought against football players in another New Jersey town, a Brooklyn high school teacher arrested for inappropriate behavior with seven students, a Dallas-area high school teacher arrested for sexual assault of his 16-year-old student, and a California school district arguing in court that a 14-year-old girl could be held responsible for a sexual relationship with her adult male teacher.
No one wants their child’s school experience to include inappropriate sexual behavior, harassment, assault, or rape. It can be an extraordinarily difficult topic to think about, let alone discuss with our teens. However, news stories like these present an opportunity to have critically important conversations with our children.
Planned Parenthood believes parents should be the primary sex educators of their own children—and that means addressing stories of abuse or assault in schools directly with our children, rather than leaving them to draw their own lessons from what they hear from friends or on social media. In a perfect world, we would introduce tough topics on our own, based on our children’s questions or their maturity level. But our kids live in a fast-paced electronic world, and shielding them from the news is simply not an option.
Data collected this year by Planned Parenthood and the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health at NYU shows that most parents are talking to their children about some topics, such as how to handle peer pressure or the importance of not pressuring others, but rarely about how to deal with inappropriate actions by adults, particularly adults that are supposed to be guiding and mentoring them. So how can we initiate conversations about these sensitive and troubling subjects?
First, ask your children what they’ve already heard, and listen to what they tell you. Don’t jump in while they’re talking and interrupt them with factual corrections — yet. It’s important that they feel their perspective is valued, and you’ll know what you need to address in response.
Next, educate them by providing the facts. Here are some things to know to help you prepare:
· Sadly, most sexual abuse is committed by someone known to the victim. When a trusted adult like a teacher violates their role to protect, the child often has trouble making sense of the situation; many young people assaulted by people they trust may not even realize this is abuse. Be clear that any adult who engages in sexual activity with a minor is engaging in criminal activity. Encourage your child to tell you and another adult in the school if they hear about anything inappropriate between students or staff.
· Boys are also sexually abused. Many people mistakenly believe that sexual assault is a problem that affects only girls, but the truth is 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. For more information, visit 1in6.org.
· People who sexually abuse others often do so to intimidate or manipulate their victim. Sex should never be an assertion of power over another person, and young people should know that it’s not their fault if a trusted adult acts inappropriately.
· Teach your kids to report inappropriate behavior. The best way to confront or prevent abuse is to report it, including when teachers, coaches, counselors, or administrators violate boundaries by acting more like friends than authority figures. If your child sees or hears anything suspicious, they should tell you and a guidance counselor or another teacher.
The most important thing is for your children to feel comfortable coming to you with their questions and anxieties. If you speak openly with them about difficult issues, they’ll know they can come to you if they ever hear about anything inappropriate happening in their own schools or social networks. And you’ll have the peace of mind that comes from correcting your children’s misconceptions about assault while showing that you are willing to talk about tough topics with them.
For a deeper look at the crisis in sex education and why schools are struggling to keep up with the what kids learn from the internet, read TIME for Family's special report on Why School Can't Teach Sex Ed.