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“Adequate training is the only way to detect abuse”

Child safeguarding part 2 pictureAlmost 50 per cent of teachers in international schools do not know how to detect child abuse, according to a recent survey. In the second article in the series, investigating child safeguarding, IB World magazine speaks to forensic psychologist Dr Joe Sullivan, about how educators can recognize if abuse is happening in their school and how to manage allegations should they arise.

You’re not going to be able to spot a sex offender in a crowd and it’s unlikely to be the stranger lurking at the school gates watching children from afar – these are the types of myths Dr Joe Sullivan, director of Mentor Forensic Services, wants to eradicate from the international school community. Over 80 per cent of abused children know their abusers, according to The SAVI  (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) Report.

Dr Sullivan is a forensic psychologist who has worked in the arena of child sexual abuse and child exploitation for the last 30 years. He performs risk assessments and works with people who have a sexual interest in children. Dr Sullivan works with law enforcement on investigations into sexual crimes against children and has been linked with several high profile cases. He recently began working with Jane Larsson, Chair of the Council of International Schools (CIS) and the International Task Force on Child Protection (ITFCP), to help educate the international school community on this topic [read the first article here].

“The basic training that has been provided to teachers has perpetuated myths and encouraged them to believe perspectives that are false and unhelpful,” says Dr Sullivan.

Teachers who have attended training with Dr Sullivan are shocked by the time and effort sex offenders undertake to avoid suspicion. “The case examples show perpetrators that teachers considered ‘normal’ – people who, on the face of it, are just like them, whose behaviors match theirs, who don’t fit the stereotype but are either young men or women,” he says.

Female abusers are one of the biggest shocks to educators, according to Dr Sullivan. They are also surprised to learn that children themselves commit crimes: “The biggest threat to the sexual exploitation of children is from people who have managed to manoeuvre themselves into schools as well as from other children who are struggling at a personal level and in turn are acting out in a sexually problematic way towards their peers.”

Child on child abuse

The vast majority of perpetrators who go on to sexually offend as adults started offending as children, often within their school, explains Dr Sullivan: “Research suggests that up to 25 per cent of all sexual crimes against children are committed by children. Our training encourages teachers to recognize this and we help them understand what is appropriate, inappropriate and most definitely problematic behaviours.”

Sexting – sending sexually explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone – is a rising trend among today’s younger generation but in many countries, if a child takes an inappropriate picture of themselves and distributes it, they have committed more than one offence.

Schools have to educate themselves in social media- and internet-related misuses so they can work with children and ensure they don’t inadvertently get themselves into trouble. Or if teachers are dealing with a child who is problematic, they can direct them to the resources that can divert children from more serious behaviour in the future.

Joe photo - Child Ssafeguarding

Dr. Joe Sullivan

The obvious signs

There are some indicators that signal inappropriate behaviour. This includes indecently touching children, purposely walking in on them when changing, sharing inappropriate sexualized jokes, and engaging in sexualized commentary with colleagues around students.

“There will be teachers reading this article who recognize some of these behaviours, but find it difficult to challenge,” says Dr Sullivan. Adequate training and creating a policy that carefully details inappropriate behaviour encourages an open environment that empowers teachers to raise concerns. “It is this environment that people, who would sexually exploit children, shy away from.”

A 2015 ITFCP study of 700 international educators found that nearly 30 per cent of international schools do not have a written policy on child protection and, in 32 per cent of cases, the policy does not clearly indicate areas of responsibility for child protection.

Training can help teachers understand why policies and procedures are so critically important, says Dr Sullivan: “Criminal background checks are not enough. This has to be the first step in a system that is protective of children. Schools need to train staff in how to detect some of the signs that children are being abused – or if they are vulnerable to a particular individual. This gives teachers the confidence to confront behaviour which is inappropriate or doesn’t adhere to the school’s policies and procedures.”

But confidence remains an issue. The ITFCP study reveals that almost 50 per cent of teachers lack confidence in their ability to detect abuse. Dr Sullivan works with ITFCP to help lower this. Cultural difference or misunderstanding sometimes leads to hesitance but no matter where in the world you are, some things are unacceptable.

“We help teachers understand that someone who has a conviction for downloading child pornography, for example, has a sexual interest in children and therefore should be regarded as someone who is likely to represent a significant amount of harm to a child,” he explains.

Dr Sullivan says that, difficult as it may be to believe, “some schools have employed or re-employed people who have a history of viewing, downloading or accessing child pornography via the internet and have not recognized that this is a very clear indicator for someone who would be an inappropriate person to work at a school.”

Helpful advice

Fear that suspicions may be wrong was cited by almost 40 per cent of teachers as a barrier to reporting allegations in the ITFCP survey.

Dr Sullivan offers some advice. “Teachers can sensitively approach the situation and say: ‘I’m not happy with you behaving in that way, I think that’s inappropriate. I’m not calling you a sex offender, I’m calling your behaviour something that runs contrary to the school’s policy so we need to address that and make sure that this doesn’t happen again’. When you provide the language for challenging others that doesn’t vilify them for speaking up, it gives teachers more confidence.”

But if an allegation does arise, it’s important to have a very clear protocol, which ensures a member of staff does not carry out the investigation because they are likely to have a relationship with the accuser. “This protocol protects teachers, too. It’s not calling them guilty, it just ensures the investigation is fair and transparent.”

“Fear of reporting is enhanced by ignorance and managed through knowledge,” adds Dr Sullivan. Armed with knowledge and training, teachers can understand how child abusers infiltrate organizations and how they might go about manipulating colleagues. This can help ensure that the school environment remains a safe place for children.

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