Safe Environment

Save EnvironmentJan Rayburn - Archdiocese of Miami/Safe Environment

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

All employees in the Archdiocese of Miami, as well as those volunteers working with children or vulnerable adults, are very familiar with the Virtus training program. It is a required awareness and prevention program on child sexual abuse that begins with a live training session and continues with monthly online bulletins.

Inevitably, presenters are asked at these sessions if there is a program for children. Yes, there is. The archdiocese uses the Virtus-produced program for children called Teaching Touching Safety. It is designed as a collaborative effort between parents and teachers.

As the Virtus program indicates, the prevention of child sexual abuse requires more than adult awareness and education. The task also requires giving children the tools they need to protect themselves from the advances of someone who intends to harm them.

sted-Safe-Env-320COURTESY PHOTO: Roxann Plummer, teacher’s aide at Our Lady of Lourdes School in southwestern Miami-Dade County, holds up signs to help her students learn what to do to protect themselves from adults who want to harm them.

Teaching Touching Safety begins with a short introductory video, which lays the groundwork for the educator. The lessons are organized so that each child receives the full range of information in small digestible bites. As children advance to the next age group, they are exposed to a whole new set of age-appropriate lessons that explore the major topics in increasingly greater detail. Activities contained in the lesson plans help students apply the message from the lessons to their daily lives.

The Teaching Touching Safety program began with six lesson plans and has now expanded to 10 in age-appropriate categories: grades K-2, grades 3-5 and 6-8, and high school. Students in archdiocesan parochial schools and religious education programs are given two lessons per year.

Lessons begin with understanding touching safety rules and defining and identifying safe friends and adults. Ideally this would be the parents; sadly, this is not always the case.

Children are also taught to distinguish between safe and unsafe touches. For example, the Virtus materials suggest a safe touch is a mothers good-night kiss on the cheek, a fathers hug when he comes home from work, a friend's high five on the playing field, or even sharing the Sign of Peace with people at Sunday Mass.

The program goes on to explain that while these are safe touches that feel good, there are other safe touches that may hurt. For example, a shot from a nurse to prevent illness, stitches on a scraped knee, or getting a cavity filled by a dentist.

Conversely, an unsafe touch is any touch that is meant to hurt or scare someone.

Children learn that private body parts are to be treated carefully and kept covered; that only a few special safe adults may see or touch a childs private body parts, and then only to help keep the child clean and healthy.


COURTESY PHOTO: Children and teachers from the religious education program at St. Edward Parish in Pembroke Pines hold up signs saying “stop” or “go” after being taught age-appropriate Teaching Touching Safety lessons. The signs teach them how to respond to “safe” or “unsafe” touching and reinforce the safe environment training as equal in importance to fire or traffic safety.  

At St. Edward Parish in Pembroke Pines, Camile Laurino and Rosalie Costantino give the children paper doll cut-outs to demonstrate the private body parts. Their students also cut and paste together traffic signs to use in response to different scenarios. In this way it is clear that these lessons are another safety program, like fire safety or traffic safety.

Students are taught to clearly say words that mean No! if someone tries to touch their private body parts or tries to get the child to touch the private body parts of the other person. Additionally, they are to run and tell their safe adult of the incident.

Laurino and Costantino say the program is important, as so many children are left on their own while parents are busy with other jobs or chores.

Other lessons cover the grooming techniques of predators and help children recognize risky adult behavior. The lesson plans emphasize the danger of keeping secrets from parents, since predators often manipulate a child into silence. It is paramount to assure children that they will be heard and that they can come forward with anything that makes them feel unsafeeven if someone told them to keep it a secret or threatened them if they told.

Two lessons include Internet safety. These lessons begin simply in the youngest grades with the teacher holding an iPad very close to her face and asking the children if her eyes are open or closed. She may then hold her hand behind the monitor and ask the class how many fingers she is holding up. Obviously, the children cannot know. This is how at a very young age children are taught the notion that they do not know who they are communicating with online. They only know what the other person wants them to know.

Deacon Michael Plummer, director of religious education at of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in southwestern Miami-Dade County, stresses the need for Internet safety lessons with his students. It is hard to convince teens of the dangers of the Internet, he said.

In addition to the 10 lesson plans, he made available to his students portions of Virtus bulletins on sexting, which are geared toward adults. He said all the Virtus materials and especially the Teaching Touching Safety lessons are working well with lessons on self-image and self-respect and the teachings of our faith where life is reverenced.

At his suggestion, the national Virtus group is working on a two-year condensed lesson plan for those preparing for confirmation.
In order to teaching children about safety, parents, educators, and other caring adults must demonstrate appropriate relationship boundaries and teach children how to protect themselves from violators. We can empower children to respond in the best possible ways when those boundaries are violated.

virtusJan Rayburn is Virtus training coordinator for the Archdiocese of Miami.                    

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