This article first appeared in the February 9th, 2012 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Laura Power
Special To The Standard
A lurid and terrifying story unfolded bit by bit in central Vermont in the summer of 2008. A pre-teen girl went missing; as police and family desperately searched, her uncle was arrested and later charged with sexually assaulting and killing her. In the days and weeks that followed, a litany of horrifying details dribbled out: that the uncle’s alleged long history of committing acts of violence and sexual abuse began when he was 11 years old, that he purportedly plotted for weeks to kidnap and assault his niece and used abuse and manipulation to enlist the help of another young victim, and that Vermont’s criminal justice system, at several points, apparently failed to adequately address brutal, oppressive, and deceitful behaviors.
The heartbreaking events of that tragic summer served as wake-up call for many Vermonters; the state’s Legislature in particular went to work to revise and strengthen Vermont’s laws to protect children from sexual abuse. The following spring, the House and Senate passed An Act Relating to Improving Vermont’s Sexual Abuse Response System, now familiarly known as “Act One.” Next Monday evening, February 13, the Woodstock Task Force to Prevent Sexual and Domestic Violence will host a public discussion of the history, intentions, and implications of Act One, led by a panel of advocates and local Representative Alison Clarkson. The event is an opportunity for parents and others to learn and talk about ways to keep kids safe, and to begin to create the awareness that is prerequisite to establishing prevention as a community norm.
Act One “is an acknowledgement that sexual violence is epidemic in our communities,” says one of Monday’s planned panelists, Sarah Kenney, Associate Director of Public Policy for the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, “[the legislation addresses] a full spectrum of interventions from prevention to sentencing, at every step of the way, [so the state] can better respond to sexual violence.”
While the alleged acts of one man served as a primary impetus for Act One, sexual abuses of children nationwide and in Vermont are not infrequent or isolated incidents. Some studies estimate that one in three girls and one in seven boys are sexually abused during childhood. According to a report published by the Vermont Department for Children and Families, there were 346 substantiated reports of child sexual abuse in Vermont in 2009, and another 56 substantiated reports of children at risk of sexual abuse. Research suggests that only ten to thirty percent of incidents are actually reported. Most Vermont victims knew their abusers, the perpetrators were parents, siblings, relatives, friends, or other acquaintances; almost all the sexual abusers were men, and over forty percent were age 20 or younger.
“I think that there is this notion that the danger comes from strangers, from this creepy person in the bushes jumping out with a knife,” says Kenney, “but that’s not the scenario that most sexual violence victims face in Vermont and across the country.” She hopes that Monday’s discussion will leave attendees with a more realistic understanding of how sexual abuse and violence actually occur in our communities.
Act One now mandates that employees of Vermont primary and secondary schools receive training on preventing, identifying, and reporting sexual abuse. The law also requires that the schools incorporate into their student curricula “developmentally appropriate” instruction about cultivating healthy relationships and recognizing sexually offending behaviors. Another of Monday’s planned panelists, Donna McAllister, a Health Education Consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, has spent the last many months travelling around the state, helping schools understand and comply with the law. “Many [schools], especially high schools with health educators, are already doing this, so it is business as usual,” she says of the new mandates, “for the elementary schools, what [the needed curriculum] looks like is really about developing the interpersonal communication skills and the trusted adults that [kids] can go to to talk about things that are happening in their lives.” The challenge, particularly for the younger grades, she adds, is getting some teachers and parents to understand that the program “is really about safety, it is not about sexuality education at all.”
Woodstock Elementary School (WES) Principal Karen White says that her teachers and staff have already begun the process of examining the new required learning objectives and determining the gaps in their current lesson plans and strategies. The February 13 panel discussion is a part of the process to begin to work with parents. “It won’t be at the level of detail about what does this mean for first grade, what does this mean for second grade,” she says, “but it will be helpful [for parents] to understand the background and overall objectives of Act One.” Training about Act One requirements is scheduled for WES personnel in March; soon after that they will work through needed curriculum changes and further engage parents. “We want to make sure that before we change our existing health curriculum that parents are fully informed of what we are doing,” says White.
Panelist Kenney notes that in the hearings conducted around the state during development of Act One, legislators heard clearly, especially from educators and community members, that we just aren’t talking enough about sexual abuse and healthy relationships. “Everybody calls for mandatory minimum sentences and those sorts of criminal justice interventions, after something has happened,” she says, “but people also felt that more could be done on the front end, for prevention.” We all have a role to play in preventing sexual violence and abuse, she adds, and Monday’s discussion event is a good first step for understanding what needs to be done.
The Woodstock Task Force to Prevent Domestic and Sexual Violence and The Woodstock Healthy Teens Project present a panel discussion:
Act One: History, intention and implications of ground-breaking legislation to end sexual violence
6:30 PM, Monday, February 13
Woodstock Elementary School Library
Free and open to the public
Planned Panelists: Representative Alison Clarkson, Sarah Kenney (Associate Director of Public Policy, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence), Donna McAllister (Health Education Consultant, Vermont Department of Education)
The Task Force also plans to hold community discussion events in March, April, and May.