Yes, In Your Backyard

    Last week, the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office announced the arrest of a former Germantown Academy teacher for engaging in a sexual relationship several years ago with his 17-year old student.  Shocking?  Maybe for an elite private school community which may erroneously believe abusers are boogie men off the street. 

    Let’s take a hard and uncomfortable look at the numbers. 93% of child victims know their predator. 93 PERCENT.  That means if you don’t think abuse is happening in your backyard, or in your child’s school or church or neighborhood, you’ve been looking at the world through antiquated and inaccurate blinders.  The majority of sexual predators are known to the victim.  It is most often a “trusted” adult who is charming, well-liked and engaging.  In this case, the alleged offender was a teacher but it could have easily been a coach, family friend, relative, neighbor or even another parent.  

   When allegations of abuse surface, many victims’ claims are doubted and followed by the usual questions: “How could the parents not know?” or “How could the school be unaware?”.  Or my personal favorite, “Why did it take her/him so long to come forward?”.   Let’s be clear, predatory behavior is manipulative.  Predators are calculated and deceitful but they are also seemingly caring and loving towards their victims (and often the other adults in their victim’s lives).  They groom them, make them feel guilty and use unconscionable threats to prevent them from speaking up.  

   In addition, to the sociopathic nature of predators, technology is serving as their ally.  Sure, smartphones and iPads can make it easier for parents to keep track of their kids but it also means abusers have equally as much access to these children and their delicate and vulnerable psyche. Abuse can go undetected for years.  Yes, predators are really good at what they do.  That’s why we have to be better.  As parents, educators and decent human beings, we have to know the facts about abuse and be able to recognize the subtle signs which may signal it is happening to someone you know.  

Here are some easy tips:

  • Know all the adults your children interact with and make sure they know who you are. 
  • Monitor all electronic devices. Yes, you are invading your children’s privacy. Guess what? THEY ARE CHILDREN. They need their privacy invaded because they are not adults and are not prepared to behave or make decisions as adults. 
  • Inspect your child’s contacts in phones, tablets, and computers and ask who each person is. Predators are smart and will tell kids to list them as an alias or even use a name for the opposite sex, so they can tell a parent it’s a classmate or peer. If you find a name that is unfamiliar, ask follow-up questions.
  • Monitor text communications for anything inappropriate. 

    In addition, beware of the “good guys”.  Is your child spending a lot of time with an adult who is acting as a “mentor?”.  Mentorship shouldn’t occur without the parents’ permission.  Even if you give the green light to what you expect to be a healthy relationship, set boundaries.  Make it very clear your child should not be alone with the mentor.  This means classroom doors should be open and there shouldn’t be any interaction unless it is in a supervised, public space.

    No staff member should be interacting with a student outside of school without the specific permission of both the school and the parents. If there is a student who appears to be spending a great deal of time with a staff member, ask questions.  Even if it is not your child.  You can inquire anonymously without any fear of repercussions.  If there is a particular staff member who seems more interested in being a “friend” to students, ask your child questions about their interactions. It is perfectly appropriate for a teacher, coach or school administrator to be a trusted adult in a child’s life.  We want kids to have a variety of relationships and adult influences.  BUT, and this is a big but, there needs to be specific boundaries and monitoring strategies to ensure those relationships remain appropriate and healthy for the child. 

    If your child or a child you know is acting depressed, isolated, nervous or preoccupied with technological communication, it is time to step in.  Abuse doesn’t present just one or two symptoms and if it was always easy to detect, well, I’d be able to retire.  

    Sex offenders do not commit their crimes impulsively.  More than not, they carefully plan and employ preliminary steps to groom a victim.  They are aware, what they are doing is wrong and their impulse to do it again and again makes them very good at staying under the radar.  Their actions are often subtle; their victims often complacent.  But if we work together to educate ourselves on how to trust our instincts; how to see beneath the glossy surface of an infectious, yet suspicious personality—we can interrupt a very calculated plan, prevent a crime and save a child’s life.