It is not news to regular readers of The Interim that our school systems. Public and private, have increasingly allowed themselves to take on programs that have strayed far from what we have traditionally expected of schools.

These ‘socially relevant’ programs are crowding out the regular academic curriculum, and result in putting teachers into the role of surrogate parents.  Many of us are aware of just how misguided some of these initiatives are, and how destructive they are to the family unit.

Lack of success

In spite of the lack of demonstrable success in these areas, some segments of society continue to expect the school to deal with a host of problems facing our current generation of children.  Since the children are in a captive situation, they believe the school is an ideal place to unload many so-called ‘preventative’ programs – to catch them before they have to face the problems head on.

For the most part, they have written off the authority of the family, and they maintain that parents are not longer capable of guiding their children.

It has been disappointing to me that the education system has responded with full cooperation, and also that some parents are seemingly quite happy to have their children ‘taken care of’ by the system.  Both groups can share the blame for what is happening.  And both groups also share the solution, if they are willing to stop and take a look at what is happening.

What’s the impact?

How long will it be before most parents and schools finally understand the actual impact of these programs?  Questions need to be answered, and soon.  How safe are these programs?  Do they really solve or prevent anything?  Who designed them?  Are they educationally sound?  Who evaluates them?  Do they have unanticipated negative outcomes?  Do they belong in the school in the first place?  Who is responsible when they fail to live up to their inaugural promises – or worse still, when they actually do some damage to children?

Personal safety

One area of programming to which our children continue to be subjected is the one intended to provide personal safety in the form of sexual abuse prevention.

During the mid-eighties, significant numbers of teachers, principals, school trustees and parents embraced sexual abuse prevention programs with enthusiasm.  Repelled by incidents of child sexual abuse, these people were prepared to do anything they believed would correct the situation.

It is increasingly evident, however, that their good intentions have been undermined by unforeseen and unintended outcomes, and the time to evaluate what is happening is long overdue.  Indeed, evidence is mounting to suggest that they are harmful enough to warrant their immediate elimination from all schools.

New concerns

After several years of experience with the programs, one might expect proponents to be able to point to significant achievements.  Those of us with serious concerns about their impact, however, are finding that current research is reinforcing our predictions.

From the beginning, we questioned the knowledge base that provided the substance for the programs.  The answer, of course, is that there was no significant research undertaken to support the basic goals and strategies contained within the structure of the programs.  It seems that most of what is done with children in these programs was based not on well-established, sound psychological theory or effective research, but on what developers believed made ‘sense’ and also what seemed ‘popular’.

As implementation continued, several other concerns became evident:

  • Misleading

When the programs are introduced to parents or teachers, the incidence of sexual abuse is usually described in a manner which is quite misleading.  Statistics which refer to the incidence of abuse cover such a wide range of events that their use is meaningless.  Incest is portrayed as either the ‘most common’ or at least a ‘common’ form of abuse (not true).  This succeeds in creating a panic, in the midst of which teachers and parents are willing to do anything.

  • Unsound

The underlying philosophy which promotes empowerment of children to recognize and control abusive situations is unsound and counter-effective in reducing sexual abuse.  The use of empowerment in dealing with relationships is borrowed from strategies to help adults, but which do not readily transfer to children.

  • Psychological damage

It is quite possible that a greater number of children suffer negative consequences from the program itself than those who might be victims of actual abuse.  By any definition of abuse, a majority of children will never be sexually abused.  In the case of incest, a far greater number of children cannot relate the information to anything real in their lives.  There is increasing evidence to suggest that a number of children will suffer some sort of psychological damage.  Many children become anxious or fearful, or become inappropriately aggressive.

  • Effect on families

The effect on families is potentially devastating.  I have now heard accounts of several extremely negative experiences in families.  The normal young child who is not in an exploitive situation cannot relate to the information in the programs.  Consequently, some children can and do interpret normal affection from family members as abuse.  It is virtually impossible to repair the damage to a family resulting from the removal of a father during the investigation and/or court action that follows a false disclosure.

  • Loss of innocence

One of the most negative trends for young children today is the assault on childhood.  Concerned as I am about the loss of innocence in childhood from so many other sources, it really troubles me when an institution that is relied upon to safeguard childhood undertakes activities which add to the problems.  These programs are undertaken at or in the age when children are in their latency period – with unpredictable consequences.  Further, there is the concern that the first introduction to sex in this extremely negative context could have repercussions in adulthood.

  • Dangerous confusion

The good-touch/ bad-touch idea, found in most programs, leads to confusion and is dangerous.  Young children do not possess the abstract thought processes necessary to understand the subtleties, for one thing.  The association of ‘feeling-good-means-acceptable’ is clearly inappropriate given that the pedophile ‘seduces’ his victim, and it can backfire with an adolescent girl looking for affection.

  • Little parental participation

The success of the program apparently relies heavily on the participation of the parents.  Not all the parents of the children subjected to the programs attend the introductory meeting; they merely give paper consent.

If the programs emphasize that the participation of the parents is important, then why have the children whose parents have not been sufficiently informed been included?

Parents who do attend after hearing the concerns expressed about the programs, are asking more questions.  These parents who are asking legitimate questions or raising reasonable concerns have not, in many instances, been well received.  The attitude is one of ‘don’t question the experts’.  I have also had parents tell me that what they were presented with at the orientation meeting was not sufficiently descriptive of the activities in the program itself.

  • Theoretical withdrawal only

Parents are told that they can withdraw their children from the program, but that, as many know, is an intimidating process, and quite an unsatisfactory solution.  With the talk about eventually integrating these programs into the Humanities stream of the curriculum, opting out will not be possible, let alone make sense.

Further, some of the teacher training programs suggest that parents who do not wish to have their children participate are themselves suspected of abusing their children.  This reaction is one reason why parents who have inner feelings of anxiety over the program and would prefer their children not to participate reluctantly give consent.

  • False sense of security

Now that these programs have been implemented, I have concerns that society will be tempted to relax.  Parents and teachers will feel that the children have been prepared to defend themselves against exploitation, or tell someone when it occurs.  Other than a frequent repetition of the same programs, little more may be done to deal effectively with the sexual exploitation of children.  This creates a false sense of security which eliminates the incentive to try something that will work, and ultimately will prove to be very counter-productive.

  • False accusations

It is becoming painfully evident that children are using their new-found skills and vocabulary for purposes that were not intended.

Aside from inappropriate playground activity, which is reportedly common, there is something far more serious we have to contend with.  An increasing number of false disclosures occur, plugging up the investigative machinery and the courts.  The latter may involve child custody cases or accusations against professionals working with children.  Fathers, particularly those separated from the family with only access to their children, are afraid to display affection in any physical way toward their children, and teachers have discontinued what used to be quite acceptable displays of affection with children.  At a time when the alienation of children and lack of affection is identified as a major factor in the destructive behaviours they may undertake, how can this not be contributing to the problem?

  • Let us raise the questions

I believe that most of the professionals involved in these programs for elementary children have approached the subject with genuine concern for them.  Many probably believe the programs have merit, but few of them have likely asked to see the evidence; after all they bought them on faith.

That faith has now been put in doubt, and they should now be the ones asking questions.  Surely they cannot continue their unproven course of action when they become aware of the damage that is occurring to normal children through their well-meaning attempts to protect them.

To continue the programs is another form of abuse.  The loss of trust and closeness in a happy family cannot be justified on the basis that someone had good intentions.

The onus is on those who feel that these programs are safe and effective to produce sufficient evidence.  Any research so far that purports to demonstrate the positive effect of the programs seems limited to measuring gains in knowledge, but the researchers fail to demonstrate how that knowledge is of any benefit.  Normally, educators would be demanding evidence of the effectiveness of a new program.  Will they do so now?

  • Moratorium needed

The only reasonable step that school systems can undertake in the wake of the rapidly building file of negative reaction is to place an immediate moratorium on all such programs (even though I believe enough evidence exists to cancel them altogether).

It is my opinion that, not only will evidence justifying the programs not materialize, but any attempt to ‘fix’ them will not succeed.  When something is wrong because the inherent philosophy is faulty, then mere adjustments will not avoid the risks.  Proponents’ claims that they can be ‘careful’ when they implement the programs reveal their complete misunderstanding of the complexity of the young child’s mind, family dynamics and the sexual abuse phenomenon.

I am as concerned as anyone about the abuse that does occur, and I share the desire to try to prevent the sexual abuse of young children.  Rather than do nothing, for that is not what I am suggesting, we should take our resources and work with the adults on a realistic program.  This problem affects children, but it is an adult problem with adult solutions.

  • Optional only

In spite of the odds against their being successful, though, some teachers and parents may still want abuse ‘prevention’ programs.  If they want to continue this futile approach, then the negative information now available must be made known to parents and teachers before any program begins (the concept of informed consent).

The only really legitimate offering for those who still wish their children to participate would be an ‘opt-in’ arrangement, with the program being offered out of regular school hours.  To continue a mandatory program with ‘opt-out’ provisions for dissenting parents is quite inappropriate and totally unacceptable.

In the meantime, parents are going to have to maintain an active role here.  When a sexual abuse prevention program is about to be introduced at your school, insist on full information, and be willing to reuse to have your children participate.  Ultimately, pressure must be put on the school to eliminate such programming entirely.  The integrity of the family, and the innocence of your children are at stake – that’s all the incentive one should need!

Alan Garneau is a resident of Delta, B.C.  For 25 years, he was a teacher and administrator with the Vancouver School Board.  In June 1989 he resigned to pursue a career of defending the role of parents against intrusions from schools.