It’s up to all parents, teachers and others to help end child abuse, an expert told about 30 people on Dec. 10 in Rockville.
It’s an especially timely issue, as alleged incidents of sex abuse of students in county schools have come to light in recent months.
Jennifer Alvaro — whose past and current work related to child abuse includes education, prevention and treatment roles — led the program, called “Stewards of Children.” It was presented by a nonprofit, Darkness to Light.
The presentation was hosted by the Montgomery County Council of PTAs’ health and safety committee. Among those attending were parents, school staff and four county school board members.
Two men who worked at county public schools recently have been charged after accusations that they inappropriately touched a student. One, former substitute teacher Jose Pineda, has faced additional sex-abuse charges since his arrest.
Alvaro told the attendees they would leave the program “armed with skills” and “concrete steps” to protect children from abuse.
“You do know a child that’s been abused,” she said. “It’s impossible that you don’t.”
Alvaro is a Montgomery County Public Schools parent and member of a school system work group that school officials said is trying to improve the district’s regulations and processes around child abuse.
Attendees watched a video that offered five steps people can take to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse. The video highlighted the stories of multiple “survivors” of such abuse.
About one in 10 children is sexually abused before turning 18, according to the video. Most know their abuser.
The video recommended talking with children about abuse and what touching is inappropriate.
It’s important for parents to talk with children about the issue in a “safe, non-scary, non-threatening way” that’s also “age appropriate,” Alvaro said.
Echoing points made in the video, Alvaro emphasized the importance of reporting suspected or witnessed abuse to police and child protective services.
“It’s never too late to report and it’s never too little to report,” she said.
She also pointed to a national child abuse hotline staffed by professionals who could help if it is unclear whether certain behaviors indicate possible abuse.
During a question-and-answer period, JoAnn Burl — an attendance secretary at Fairland Elementary School in Silver Spring who also runs a mentoring program for children — asked how to appropriately explain to children that a sexual relationship with a teacher or other adult should not happen.
An adult could help children understand that no one should force or trick them to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, Alvaro said. Sometimes children don’t realize they’re being abused, she said, so adults should emphasize to children what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate.
Brenda Yuen — who has two children in the county school system and said she is a survivor of child sexual abuse — called the program “wonderful” and “top notch.”
“The more we talk about [child sexual abuse], the more we let go of the shame, and the more we normalize the conversation and make everybody safer,” Yuen said. “This is what we need to get to.”
Jill Ortman-Fouse, who recently joined the county school board, said she attended the program because to learn as much as she can about child abuse — “a very hot issue in our school district.”
She said she thinks program like this one help parents talk with their children.
Speakers in the video and Alvaro said a code of conduct for adults in an organization can clarify what behavior is inappropriate. Ortman-Fouse said the school system should “absolutely” look into developing such a code.
“The clearer we can be about guidelines around this issue, the better for all of us and for all of our kids,” she said.