Lehigh's Roger Douglas with Tina Limbird, a school counselor at the Brandenburg International School in Berlin, Germany.
When the Berlin Brandenburg International School in Berlin, Germany, sought help to create a sexual abuse and assault prevention program, the College of Education’s Nick Ladany and Roger Douglas were quick to respond.
, professor of counseling psychology, and Douglas
, associate director of the Office of International Programs, were riveted by international headlines that continue to document the growing number of abuse cases involving young children.
As a result, the two went to work preparing for the week-long series of seminars
by researching current examples of comprehensive, K-12 sexual safety programs. They were joined in the effort by Lehigh graduate students Lauren Kulp, Clare Burgess and Shana Flicker.
For all the attention that sexual abuse was getting in the media, however, they soon realized that educational outreach programs had not kept up the pace.
“No one is really doing this type of work,” Ladany explains.“We haven’t been able to find even one example of a comprehensive, K-12 curriculum that seriously addresses this matter.”
A cultural confrontation
That may have to do with the fact that Americans are relatively uncomfortable discussing sex and sexual abuse in public forums like the classroom. Questions about what’s appropriate to teach children—and who should do the teaching—continue to be left unresolved.
Recent reports indicate that nearly 20 percent of all girls and upwards to 10 percent of school-aged boys experience some sort of sexual abuse. One-half of all victims are under the age of seven.
“To put it simply, if 20 percent of all kids had a cold, we’d be all over it,” Ladany says. “When the issue is sexual abuse, though, we tend to think of it as a private matter—which, to a large extent, it is—but we fail to explore what’s at the heart of the matter.”
Douglas agrees. As a former principal in American International schools himself, he knows all to well that sexual abuse transcends cultures and geographic borders.
“Part of a child’s education is understanding his or her own environment,” he says. “Having the proper outlook and access to the right kinds of resources is crucial to their development, and that’s what these curriculum guidelines are all about.”
Sexual abuse prevention resources are readily available, but more often that not, they are targeted at a specific age. That means that students are getting a fragmented introduction to sexual abuse prevention—if they’re getting any introduction at all.
An evolving curriculum
As a result, Ladany and Douglas’ team developed an integrated K-12 sexual safety and abuse prevention program. It features specific curriculum created for each grade level, along with corresponding tools and resources for counselors, teachers, parents and administrators.
It was a multidisciplinary effort. College of Education faculty and students involved with the project represented disciplines spanning counseling psychology, educational leadership, special education, and teacher education.
That level of collaboration resulted in a phased and holistic approach to educational programming. Essentially, the curriculum evolves along with a child’s age and physical and emotional development.
Children in kindergarten, for example, are introduced to “safe touches,” while second graders are taught the “ask first” rule. Cyber safety is introduced to fourth graders, while sixth graders learn how to safely talk in a virtual environment.
“This curriculum is a step-by-step approach that evolves along with the child and builds upon itself,” explained Ladany. “Our philosophy is to create as safe an environment for children by strengthening the lines of communications between children and those they can trust.”
“Ideally, we hope these guidelines promote self-esteem and resilience as children learn to interact with others and in changing environments,” added Douglas.
Much like their peers in American classrooms, International School students—usually children of American families living and working abroad—can experience a range of social, emotional and behavioral challenges in their educational environment. Because they are overseas in relatively unfamiliar environments, however, those challenges can be exacerbated.
The Berlin program was well-received. In fact, educators from Berlin area schools were intrigued by the proposed curriculum and approached Lehigh about adapting some of the program for their schools, as well.
It’s one of the reasons why cultural differences associated with sexually-related issues are highlighted in the new curriculum.
In Germany, for example, the pregnancy rate is five times less than in the United States. There are also up to 50 percent less reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases in Germany and its neighboring countries. Still, the problem of sexual abuse continues exists—and, like the U.S., Germany has yet to establish a consistent way of tackling the issue.
Buoyed by their success in Germany, Ladany and Douglas, as well as their colleagues from the College of Education
, have now started to develop a series of school safety programs tailored specifically to the needs and cultures of American International Schools.
“It’s a great start and we think it has some real potential to help change the way school safety is approached,” added Sally A. White, dean of the College of Education. “Nick, Roger and their colleagues have designed a program that is ground-breaking because it gives educators the tools and resources they need to make headway on an issue that has been left unresolved for too long.”