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How can I advocate for children involved in school-based sexual incident in school?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

My friend's son who is 6 has been suspended from school and is accused of sexual harassment of a classmate. I have worked in human services and understand the possible underlying reasons for the behavior, and feel the school's focus is to inflict threats and charges upon one but not the other. I want to see both children given help and can't imagine how with a single incident they can identify the aggressor. Regardles,s he is a child and I must advocate for him as well as the other boy and don't know how to do so without doing more harm.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Friend,

Thank you for contacting Stop It Now! regarding your concern over your friend’s child. I’m so glad that you’re reaching out to us – it’s fantastic that both this child and his parents have your support, and that you’re willing to advocate for the safety of everyone involved.

It sounds like likely you know a bit about children’s behavior already given your stated background, so you may already know some or all of what I will explain first. Also, please feel free to share this email and information with your friend.

Understanding Children’s Sexual Behaviors
Children’s sexual behaviors are very different from adult’s sexual behaviors. Children often act out sexually in the same way that they may act out behaviorally. There are a variety of different reasons that a child may behave in a way that is considered sexually inappropriate or harmful: a the child may have seen, heard or been exposed to something more sexually explicit than appropriate, they may be curious and just need redirection, they may be reacting to environmental stressors like school, divorce, death in the family, or other significant change, or they may be struggling with an impulse control problem. It is important to be able to recognize the difference between Age-Appropriate Sexual Behavior and more Concerning Behaviors Between Children.

When a child acts out sexually, what is certain is that they would benefit from extra supervision and support. Although I am unsure what behaviors occurred between this 6 year old and his classmate that caused him to be accused of sexual misconduct and suspended, as you have said, it is always a good idea to provide additional help to both children.

School Policies
Sometimes the best way to address a situation like this is to find out more about the policies and procedures in place. Does the school have written procedures to provide guidance in situations like this?

This would be a great time to open up a discussion about the school’s policies and what type of safety planning precautions they have in place, such as how youth are supervised and who youth can go to when they have a concern. You and your friend could ask for a meeting with the principal or other school authority to review the school’s actions and to gather more information about whether their response is in line with their usual and typical response to similar situations.  

Having this important conversation with the principal will not only clarify what sort of preventative measures are in place to keep the children safe in school, but will also let you both know whether they handled this situation between your friend’s child and his classmate according to their policies. If they did handle this according to their policy, this may open up a broader question as to whether or not they handle youth-youth sexual interactions with respect and care. These types of interactions are common, and teachers and staff should make them a positive teachable moment, while also keeping everyone safe.

Asking these important questions would be the best way to advocate for this little boy. It is important to make sure his school is adequately safeguarded and has preventative policies in place. It is also vital that professionals and staff alike respond to children with sensitivity: re-directing the child and teaching healthy sexuality in an informative respectful way, while encouraging a healthy environment. You may find the following helpful when talking to your friend’s child’s school:

Additional Support
Also, another great resource for this little boy and his parents would be the school guidance counselor, especially since the incident occurred on school grounds. The school guidance counselor often sees children during school times, and may provide help and support in this matter. They can also be a great liaison to the parent(s) as to how he is doing in school, and can be another way to get further involved in ensuring he has all the support he needs.

Reporting
You’re right – sometimes it is incredibly difficult to know who is the aggressor, who may be telling the truth, and what really happened. However, since it was the school that was supervising both children at the time, I’m wondering if there was a Report filed to your local Child Protective Services (CPS). Teachers are in fact mandated reporters, and since he was suspended for sexual harassment, the onus would be on them to have reported this to CPS.

It would be important to find out if CPS has been contacted already, and if not, why. Also, I would encourage his mother to file a report independently with what she knows. Should CPS choose to open the investigation, they are often a helpful resource to ensure that all the children involved get the help, support and protection they need. Please visit State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers to find the local reporting number for CPS in your state.

It sounds like you are a well-spoken, knowledgeable individual, and that your friend and your friend’s child are both lucky to have your support. I’m so glad that you have reached out to us looking to advocate for children’s safety.

Take Care,

Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: July 16th, 2015