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Vermont Requires Child Sexual Abuse Prevention. Could Wyoming, Too?

Tennessee Watson
Joy Kitchell with the materials she uses to teach kids ages 3 to 8 about healthy relationships as a part of her work to prevent child sexual abuse in Bennington, Vermont.

This is the second in a two-part series on this issue. To hear WPR Reporter Melodie Edward's story, click here.

Last year, Wyoming enacted legislation authorizing school districts to teach child sexual abuse prevention. Schools have a unique power to stop sexual abuse because kids spend so much time there. But the bill is not a mandate. It merely says school districts may do prevention work.

Jody Sanborn dreams about the day when all Wyoming communities work to keep kids safe from sexual abuse. But the prevention specialist for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault said Wyoming isn't there yet.

"Wyoming is at a stage of what we call denial or resistance that the issue even exists in the first place," said Sanborn.

National statistics estimate 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience sexual abuse before age 18. Both adults and other kids are perpetrators, and Wyoming is no exception.

"For the most part, there's a lot of education and basic knowledge and awareness that has to happen before communities are willing to accept that there is something they can do about it," said Sanborn.

Eventually, she'd like to see something in place to guarantee schools are doing prevention statewide. But she knows Wyoming's strong culture of local control makes that hard.

Vermont State Senator Richard Sears said his state faced something similar. Vermont has a population of around 600,000 with remote towns like Wyoming but on a much smaller scale.

"The last thing anybody wants to do is tell the local school board you shall do this and you shall do that," said Sears. "But I think the state also understood that we had a big problem."

Vermont was forced to confront its problems because of a tragedy. In 2008, a 12-year girl named Brooke Bennett was raped and murdered by her uncle, a known sex offender. That's when this bucolic state known for its close-knit communities was left tormented by the question: How could this happen here?

In the year that followed, Senator Sears and a group of lawmakers set out to prevent it from happening again. They started by hosting public hearings across the state.

"We heard from people and communities," said Sears. "What did they want, and what did they expect?"

The lawmakers gathered a diverse set of solutions, and in 2009, Vermont became the first state to implement comprehensive legislation to address child sexual abuse. That bill-commonly referred to as Act One- includes a requirement that prevention education happens in pre-school through 12th grade.

For Linda Johnson, that was a big win.

"I've never seen anything quite like it in my life. And I'm 72 at this point, " said Johnson.

For the last 33 years, she's been the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. After Act One passed, her organization stepped in to help schools get on board with the new mandate.

"It's not rocket science, but it is science. And you have to really do it well," said Johnson.

Vermont's law requires that prevention education happens, but it's up to local school boards to pick the curriculum they'd like to use. Johnson strongly encourages schools to adopt the evidence-based model that's been developed by her organization. It's called the Healthy Relationships Project.

"While many programs insist that children tell, tell, tell," said Johnson, "we talk about telling as an option."

Johnson said there's an important difference between teaching a kid they should tell versus teaching a kid that they can tell.

"We don't want to add guilt and sense of responsibility to children who have been victimized," said Johnson.

The curriculum teaches kids to pay attention to their own boundaries and how they can turn to adults for help. But another big piece of the curriculum is teaching kids to hear and accept "no" from their peers.

"That is the foundation of consent," said Johnson. "And we can teach this to two-year-olds and then again at three and four and five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, until there they are in that situation in the car and one wants to and one doesn't want to. And they have to be able to accept no for an answer."

Those lessons start simple for little kids and get more complex as they get older.

Two-hours south of Johnson's office in Vermont's state capital Montpelier, preschoolers in Bennington are working with the program.

Joy Kitchell sits on the floor with a group of 3 and 4-year-olds and reads a book about feelings. It's the first lesson out of six, and it lays the foundation that it's important to pay attention to how you feel.

She asks them to make their happy face and sad face and sleepy face and mad face. Then she prompts them to think about feeling mixed up or confused. She tells them when that happens they can ask an adult for help. She then reassures them that if they talk to one adult and they still feel confused, that's ok. They can go to another adult they trust.

Kitchell is the executive director of the Bennington County Child Advocacy Center and a Healthy Relationships Project trainer. Before taking this job, she spent 16 years as a teacher and 9 years as a principal.

"Because I saw firsthand as a teacher I had a lot of great tools and a great skill set, but I wasn't helping the kids who were the most traumatized in my classroom because I didn't recognize it," said Kitchell.

That realization inspired her to start providing training to educators in her area.

It's estimated that in Vermont about two-thirds of schools are using the curriculum. The rest use something else, and some still aren't doing anything at all.

Kitchell said it's sad to think there isn't child abuse prevention happening everywhere in the United States.

"Why would you not want your kid safe?" said Kitchell. "I just can't imagine not wanting to make things better for your kids."

Kitchell said she's grateful to live in Vermont.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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