The Metropolitan (Toronto) Separate School Board (MSSB) plans to make a child sexual abuse awareness and prevention program compulsory in all its elementary schools in September of 1989, despite mounting criticism of such programs from psychologists, educators and parents.

One such parent, Scarborough, Ontario mother of 3, Joanne Boudreau, voiced her concerns at the June 15 meeting of the MSSB. Boudreau opened her presentation to the school trustees by describing the semi hysterical behavior of her youngest daughter after a classroom lesson on sexual abuse. “Mommy,” the kindergarten student cried, “My teacher showed us dirty pictures today.”

Boudreau told the board and later, The interim, of the stress to families caused by the intensive teaching of sexual abuse prevention: ”Kids are crying, kids won’t sleep in their parent’s bed anymore, kids are saying ‘no’ out of turn, kids are saying they can sue if they’re abused….I haven’t heard anything positive; not one person –and I’ve spoken to about 10 (parents) of the 18 kids in the class – has said anything good about (the Preventive Education Program).

Across the country, a B.C. mother of four is raising the same alarm as Joanne Boudreau. Kari Simpson is the organizer of the Society for Educational Excellence (SEE), a group of parents who want to exercise more responsibility in the education of their children. Simpson can document scores of cases where abuse education produced false charges, anguished children and family strain.

Since it was piloted in 1983, the Preventive Education Program has been presented to more than 100,000 elementary school students, mostly in the Toronto area. In both separate (Catholic) and public school systems it has become the standard program for training children themselves to resist and report sexual abuse. A decade ago, shocking reports of child sexual abuse and a general fear that virtually every child was at risk eventually led to the creation and implementation of literally hundreds of sex-abuse education programs across North America.

In 1981, then Metro Toronto Chairman Paul Godfrey earmarked $300,000 to set up the Special Committee on Child Abuse with the stated goal of producing and implementing a school program to teach all children, as young as possible, what sexual abuse is and how to deal with it. This as ready to go two years later, and in the absence of board-produced abuse education programs, it has had a virtual monopoly in Toronto and area schools since then.

The Preventive Education Program is simply another variation on the theme of most abuse education programs: Children can; be taught to locate and identify their feelings on a touch continuum. At one end are “good” feelings and at the other, “bad”. These, by definition, are produced by sexual abuse.

But is the touch continuum really tailored to the child’s understanding of what constitutes sexual assault? An increasing number of experts – including its originator, U.S. sex educator Cordelia Anderson – emphatically say no. Among them is Vancouver principal W. Allan Garneau. Young children have not reached the stage where they can reason their way through the sophisticated distinctions required by the touch continuum, says the 25-year veteran of the public school system who resigned this spring partly in order to speak out freely on this issue. As a result, children as old as 12 become dangerously confused about what constitutes improper touch. Children who exhibit symptoms of paranoia about normal parental hugs and kisses fill Kari Simpson’s files.

After a decade of experimentation, Garneau says, educators are now obliged to supply indisputable evidence that such programs actually prevent abuse and do not cause psychological harm to children from healthy families. If they can’t, abuse ed. should be abandoned.

Two years ago in “The hidden agenda of the child abuse programme in Ontario schools” (The Interim. July/August 1987), Dr. Cornelia Ferreira of Scarborough, Ontario raised the same concerns that Garneau and others have more recently. Among these:

– Incidence rates of child sexual abuse are statistically unsound.

– The Preventive Education Programme – like most, if not all abuse programs – is obsessed with the idea that children should base their judgments on feelings alone, “Trust your feelings, they won’t let you down.” But, argues Ferreira, the program “seemingly wants to keep children stuck in an immature world of judgments based on feelings.”

– Boosters of sexual abuse prevention claim that children “rarely lie.” This is a dangerous oversimplification, Ferreira contends. They may not tell pre-meditated lies, but swept into a highly emotional presentation by school authorities who tend to measure the success of the program by disclosures of sexual abuse, children may lose their ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy.

Dr. Ferreira reserves her strongest criticism for the program’s definition of child sexual abuse itself. Sexual touch is neither good nor bad, parents are told; only unwanted sexual activity is sexual abuse. And “sexual abuse is when another person touches…or has you touch different parts (of the body) when you do not want to” is the teacher’s working definition for elementary level children. The logical conclusion is inescapable, says Ferreira. If consent exists, a sexual relationship between two children or between a child and an adult has the program’s stamp of approval.

Joanne Boudreau believes the Preventive Education Program is a frontal attack on the Christian sexual morality that she and the school to which she sends her children are trying to teach. “[The program] puts indecent thoughts in the kids’ heads right from the beginning,” she noted. “They are never given a solid faith to base any of this on. It’s wrecking the innocence of children’s minds from the moment they start school.”

She would like all parents of children in MSSB schools to ask themselves two critical questions: 1) Do they really want anxious, suspicious and rebellious children, preoccupied with sex and pleasure-seeking? 2) Do they really want the Preventive Education Program?