In a play designed to teach elementary school pupils how to avoid sexual abuse, a young girl from outer space (Merlana) is sent to earth to learn about the god and bad forms of touching.

Playing the role of one character, Merlana learns that pillow fights can be fun, but that touching-games can hurt people too.  In a different role she finds out it’s okay to say no to a stranger, even when that stranger says that her mother has sent for her.

In the strongest scene, she learns that sex abuse must be reported to a trusted adult, even if the offender is one’s own father.

Merlana is the star of Journey from AMU.

The play, with a supplementary teaching kit for classroom use, forms the basis of the Preventive Education Program that has been introduced into the Metropolitan (Toronto) Separate School Board and area boards of education over the past three years.

To some people, the program is an inoffensive and non-threatening way to teach children from Kindergarten on up about the gift of touch, as well as to recognize and report on sexual abuse.

Others, however, believe the program will scare children and spark youthful imaginations, leading to false charges, ruined reputations, and unwarranted public intervention into family life.

Cornelia Ferreira, who has children in the Metro separate system, believes the program is a good idea carried too far, and that it will scare children and lead to false charges of abuse.

“Certainly we need to prevent abuse, but a good teacher is able to recognize children who may be experiencing problems and deal with it appropriately.”

“The organizers of this program have accepted the blanket assumption that such abuse is widespread, and I just don’t buy that.”

The program is produced by the Metropolitan Toronto Special Committee on Child Abuse, which was formed in 1981 and incorporated in 1985.  It is committed to reducing the incidence of child abuse through coordinated action to improve detection, reporting, investigation and treatment.

In designing the Preventative Education Program, the committee worked with each local school board, the Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto, the police department, the Ministry of Education, the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations and the Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario.

Theresa Ravanello, chief social worker with the MSSB, said the program has been used in 50 schools since 1983.  It is always preceded by orientation nights at which the play is shown to parents and staff members.

“The feedback has been quite positive.  In fact, we only planned the program for Kindergarten to Grade 6; it was at the parents’ request that it was extended to Grade 8.

“We’re the only board to include Grades 7 and 8.”

Ms. Ravanello said that although parents are told they can withdraw their child from the program, thus far none have done so.  She added that there have been “several” disclosures of sexual abuse by students who saw the play, but did not know if any charges had been laid.

Due to concerns that the program could be frightening for children, Ms. Ravanello said that vague warnings about strangers are much more frightening than presenting facts in a fun, non-threatening setting.

She acknowledged that false charges are possible, but stated that because Ontario law requires professionals to report suspicions of child abuse to police and the children’s aid society, the possibility would exist with or without the program.  She said board policy requires the teacher to consult with the principal and school nurse or social worker before passing disclosures on to the police or children’s aid.

A group of Burlington parents have protested the use of the program in the Halton County school system, citing its secular values’ base as well as its potential for disturbing youngsters and sparking false accusations.