State Sen. Lauren Book will be training 50 Miami-Dade elementary school counselors in recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse in Doral on Friday.
Book — a Democrat who represents much of Broward County and is a former kindergarten teacher — created the curriculum with her foundation, Lauren’s Kids. The lesson plans are designed to teach children how to identify sexual abuse and ask for help if they need it, and it's now being used in 65,000 classrooms around the world, including here in South Florida.
She recently spoke with WLRN education reporter Jessica Bakeman. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:
WLRN: During your time in the Legislature, and well before that, you've been an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual violence, abuse and trafficking. This work came out of your own personal experience.
Yeah, it did. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse from the time that I was about 10 years old until I was 16, at the hands of my live-in female nanny. And, you know, my abuse went on 365 days a year. There was no breaks, no time off. And oftentimes, my parents were in the very next room.
It’s one of the reasons why it's so important that we talk about prevention and some of the statistics: We know that one in three girls and one in five boys may become the victim of child sexual abuse before their 18th birthday, before they graduate our K-12 system. And we know that 90 percent of the time, children are abused by someone they know, love and trust: people in their lives every single day, just like my nanny was. But we also know that 95 percent of that abuse is preventable with education and awareness.
And being that I was a classroom educator, it was really important to me that we empower children with the knowledge of how to protect themselves.
So tell us about the Safer Smarter Schools curriculum. Can you give some examples of the kinds of lessons or activities that are included in the curriculum?
It is my favorite thing to talk about. One of the activities: We ask them to close their eyes and think about, what does a stranger look like? Somebody who might hurt them. No matter where we are — Miami-Dade, in Amsterdam where we've taught the curriculum or in South Africa — kids always think that it's a tall man. Somebody with messy clothes, messy hair, and they have a gun, a knife, a sword, a leash or candy. And if that's what they're looking for, they're not often going to find it.
We talk about: What is a safe secret? What is an unsafe secret? We talk about safe touch and unsafe touch. A safe touch makes you feel, what? Loved. Happy. Excited. Maybe a safe touch for you could be a hug. But for me, it's a high five. An unsafe touch makes us feel sad, scared, icky, confused. And that may be different for me and you.
How to use your ‘I mean business’ voice if you’re in a situation that feels unsafe — how to use that voice. How to access help — something called their trusted triangle, which is three or more trusted adults that you can talk to about anything, whether it's a fight with a friend, a bad dream or a touch that makes us feel not quite right.
And when you talk about accessing help and continuing to tell until you are — the two H’s — heard and helped: that really is important, too. Because there were times that I tried, in my own way, to tell what was happening with me and my nanny. People didn't hear it. People didn't see it. I was trying my best and in the best way I knew how at that time.
And so I think that it's really important that we — not put it on the kids — but create a situation where the adults in their lives are aware and have their antennas up and know different things to look for than my parents knew to look for.
How are the lessons different for kids in pre-kindergarten or elementary school versus for older kids in middle or high school?
We do get into cyber safety and bullying in the third, fourth and fifth grades. And then in middle school and in high school, we're talking more about imbalance of power in relationships. We have a human trafficking lesson.
And there's also a version of the curriculum for students with special needs?
There is. Predators and offenders oftentimes target those that are most vulnerable. You know, if you have an individual who needs help toileting, what does that look like? If you have a nonverbal child, what are different things that you need to look for as a parent or as a guardian to keep them safe?
Do you ever get pushback from parents who are worried about exposing their children to information about something like sexual abuse before they're maybe old enough to fully understand it?
We do. We call them opportunities for growth and conversation.
If we're afraid and we stick our head in the sand that does not mean it's going to go away.