All students, regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, or other identities can be victims of sexual misconduct and abuse. Misconduct and abuse can occur anywhere, but it is important to note that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life (RAINN.org). Educators and school staff members have unique opportunities to identify when students have been harmed, regardless of where the harm takes place. We at Learning Courage believe that knowing the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct and abuse is only part of being an engaged member of the community. Knowing these signs will enable you to know what to look for. In many ways, educators are the first line of defense in protecting students. You will notice that we use statistics and content from other experts within our field. We do this to recognize the excellent work of our peers, particularly in areas outside of our core focus.
As stated in Learning Courage’s Best Practices Regarding Policies and Procedures: Schools should be specific about:
When a victim/survivor says they have been abused. it is an adult’s role to believe them and initiate the school’s process for support and investigation while complying with mandatory reporting laws. Victims/survivors may show a multitude of different signs and symptoms of sexual abuse.
Part of building a culture of safety and support around issues of sexual misconduct and abuse is ensuring that the community knows and understands the signs and symptoms of abuse. These can be shared and communicated in many ways such as through faculty meetings, school assemblies, handbooks, the school’s website, posters hung about your campus, outside speakers, modules in curriculum, etc. For these programs to be effective, your school should consider ways to inform your community. The primary attention should be placed on current students, faculty, and staff, although it’s also beneficial to share this information with parents and alumni as well.
At Learning Courage we believe that informing your community on the signs and symptoms is only one part of the school’s commitment to reducing sexual misconduct and abuse. Best practices, we believe, are wide-ranging and follow a holistic and survivor-centered approach.
Early or preemptive identification of sexual abuse can play a key role in minimizing the long-term impacts on the survivor. Below are several signs and symptoms of sexual abuse as well as signs and symptoms of predatory behavior.
A student who is being sexually abused can present signs and symptoms in many different ways and some students do not directly show any signs or symptoms, which is why this can be tricky. The ways in which students suffer from sexual abuse are wide-ranging and the following are just some of the countless ways a victim/survivor might manifest signs of abuse either physically, behaviorally, or emotionally.
Physical signs are often the most rare in cases of sexual abuse in schools because of the trusting nature perpetrators instill in their victims as well as that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life1.
Physical signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to (Rainn.org):
Behavioral and emotional changes in a student are more common than physical signs of sexual abuse. Behavioral and emotional changes can often be brushed off because the victim can simultaneously be going through puberty and teenage years which present their own challenges. Most of the behavior challenges that are signs of sexual abuse include but are not limited to a decline in trust, changes in hygiene practices, changes in performance at school (ie: lower grades, decreased enthusiasm or energy in class), a loss of interest in social activity, rebellious behavior, and drug and alcohol abuse. Emotional signs of abuse include but are not limited to nightmares, excessive worrying, anxiety, depression, and a loss of confidence. Behavioral and emotional signs are more often seen in adolescents than younger children.
Behavioral signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to (RAINN.org) :
Emotional signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to:
As stated earlier, educators are often thought of as the first line of defense in protecting students from sexual abuse and recognizing the signs of the abuse they might be enduring. Educators also may be the perpetrators of the sexual abuse. It is therefore important to note that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life (RAINN.org) (i.e. teachers, coaches, family friends, classmates, etc.).
Behaviors that indicate potential adult predatory behavior include but are not limited to the following (RAINN.org) :
There are many different actions that adults can use to engage in grooming students in their care. “Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person (student) so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them." (NSPCC.org) Grooming can occur over the internet as well as in person. Not all perpetrators of sexual abuse engage in grooming habits. Abuse can occur in many different venues at any time. Still, grooming actions can be a very clear sign that abuse is occurring or about to occur.
Grooming behaviors usually follow, but is not limited to, this outline (RAINN.org)
It is important to note that not all perpetrators engage in grooming practices with the student; if grooming does occur, the series of events and the subsequent abuse can occur in any number of ways. There is no prototypical perpetrator or victim/survivor when abuse occurs. (Darkness to Light)
Not all boundary violations are clear engagement in grooming and not all grooming behaviors are clear boundary violations. At Learning Courage we believe schools need to clearly list and explain expectations of employees regarding boundaries in their relationships with students. This process starts with the administration frequently and clearly stating their expectations with all employees around maintaining appropriate boundaries. A boundary violation in a school setting involves any behavior or action by an adult that falls outside professional expectations and causes harm or discomfort to a student3. Teachers are trusted to care safely for their students. A boundary violation is any behavior or action that degrades this trust in the professional contract between a teacher and student. Boundary violations can occur in multiple ways, including emotional, physical, technological, financial, and communicational3. Boundary violations are not always clear, which is why it is important to maintain regular discussions on the topic. But it is the teacher’s responsibility rather than the student to maintain appropriate boundaries and be thoughtful of how their behavior may be perceived as approaching or crossing boundaries.
Types of boundary violations include but are not limited to (Lucy McAllister):
Online misconduct is defined as “when one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam4.” Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological abuse for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences4. Online sexual misconduct is not limited to adult student contact, but also includes adult to adult and student to student online interactions. Most schools have acceptable use policies that articulate their rules regarding online behavior, sexting, and more.
Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse includes but is not limited to (Kids Help Phone):
Sexual misconduct and abuse can occur in any place and at any time, which includes online spaces. When sexual misconduct and abuse occur online it presents with some unique signs and symptoms compared to the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct that occur offline. The following are some examples of signs of online sexual misconduct.
Signs of online misconduct include but are not limited to (Stop It Now):
Remote learning is beginning to take a new role in schools across the country. With this change in the way schools are engaging in learning online come new risks of how sexual abuse might adapt to the online environment. Both students and teachers are having more access now than ever before into personal spaces and with that comes an increased risk of misconduct.
Some techniques to maintain a safe remote learning environment (Equal Rights.org):
For more information on remote learning environments, see the "COVID-19 Resources" page.
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