Creating safe school spaces

Some issues – and stories – have a way of haunting us, refusing to let go, pushing us to do more to understand, and to change things. The abuse of children is one such. Most of us cannot fathom why and how this can happen, and are further confounded by the idea that it is most often the protectors who turn perpetrators. Two months ago, the editorial focused on sexual violence targeting children, reacting to a slew of reports about incidents that had taken place on school premises. Not a day goes by without some news, somewhere, about a child being abused in some manner. So we recognize it is not something we can talk about one day and forget the next. We need to dig it up from the root and destroy it…if that were at all possible.

We decided then to look at the problem in some depth, exploring ways in which schools and individual teachers can be vigilant about and respond better to cases of child sexual abuse. We also bring in the story of a young teacher who found out that the adults in schools aren’t necessarily exempt from sexual harassment either. Perhaps schools are not exempt from the ills of society in general – this is a somewhat disturbing thought, given that educational institutions are the spaces within which we hope to create the citizens of a more hopeful, brighter world.

A safe school would be one that is a place of comfort for both adults and children, one where there is a culture of respect and openness, and a willingness to redress problems when they do surface. Clearly, this is not something that happens by default or even by one-time design. It takes constant nurturing, conversation, pathways kept open to children and staff, and, of course, mechanisms that allow early identification of problems and quick solutions. None of this is easy. But none of it is as hard as taking the first step.

That first step is to acknowledge the possibility that sexual abuse can happen anywhere. It can go all the way from use of inappropriate language and an invasive gaze to touching and beyond. It can happen to anyone from a child in pre-K to a senior teacher. It is about both boys and girls. Recognizing the specific vulnerabilities generated by different contexts for different groups is important, just as it is important to balance watchfulness with compassion.