Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: Empower Bystanders to Recognize Boundary-Breakers

Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: Empower Bystanders to Recognize Boundary-Breakers

Guest Blog Post by Diane Cranley, Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Expert

After allegations of child sexual abuse and molestation are made within the school environment, bystanders often begin to share concerning behaviors they saw in the alleged offender, along with a variety of justifications for why they didn’t intercede. The concerning behaviors are usually a variety of boundaries that were being broken such as being overly personal with students, pulling students out of class, giving students rides in their car, and socializing with students in person or online.


Recognize Boundary-Breaking Behaviors

It's all too common for bystanders to acknowledge the alleged offender had a history of bad boundaries but they didn’t think it was a risk factor for sexual abuse. But think about it, sexually abusing a child is one of the most egregious boundaries an adult could break, and it certainly isn’t going to be the first boundary a child molester breaks.

Child molesters will break other less significant boundaries first to see if the student tells and if adults tell them to stop. If neither of those things happens, the child molester will continue to break boundaries, desensitizing those around them to their boundary-breaking behavior until it is perceived as normal and even expected. Their boundary-breaking behavior will become more frequent and more intrusive over time until they cross the line to illegal sexual acts.

The desensitization of adult bystanders and their passive acceptance of bad boundaries is heartbreaking for the students who were counting on them to recognize the danger and intercede on their behalf. Their lack of action also poses a significant liability for insurance providers, risk pools and school districts because most adult bystanders in the school environment are mandated reporters who will have failed to meet their legal obligation to report suspected abuse.


Prevention Strategies to Limit Liability and Protect Students

But insurance providers, risk pools and school districts can limit their liability and better protect students by:

  • raising awareness that child molesters are boundary-breakers,
  • teaching mandated reporters to recognize common boundary-breaking behaviors, and
  • setting expectations for professional staff-student boundaries.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and it’s a perfect time to start talking about the simple fact that child molesters are inherently boundary-breakers. This proactive discussion will prepare your mandated reporters to notice boundary-breakers, rather than be unwittingly desensitized by their behavior.

Organizations can increase their mandated reporters’ confidence in recognizing common boundary-breaking behaviors by providing in-depth training on “grooming” which is an industry term used to refer to the collective boundary-breaking behaviors that are typically apparent in child sexual abusers before abuse occurs.

The nine key objectives of grooming include building trust, gaining access, identifying the vulnerable, isolating kids, desensitizing kids to touch, introducing intimacy, creating complicity, testing kids’ ability to keep a secret, and maintaining silence which together illuminates the boundary-breaking nature of the grooming process.

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The grooming process is a slow methodical process that gives mandated reporters many opportunities to intercede and remove students from harm's way. But will they?

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that their fear of being wrong will deter them.

This brings us to the third and perhaps most important action organizations can take to limit their liability and better protect students.


Implementing a Professional Staff-Student Boundary Policy

Every district should implement a professional staff-student boundary policy that specifically institutes boundaries that intercede with boundary-breaking grooming behaviors. A formal policy:

  • establishes a common set of expectations for all school staff to abide by,
  • communicates to students and their parents the boundaries they should expect to be honored,
  • provides adult bystanders a means to report policy violations before abuse occurs, rather than having to accuse a colleague of child abuse after the fact, and
  • provides a mechanism for objective decision-making regarding the fitness of staff to continue to serve students.

Risk pools and insurance providers can take the lead by developing a standard policy that their member districts can adopt.

Districts and other youth-serving organizations across the country have implemented such policies resulting in less concerning behavior, early reporting of boundary-breaking grooming behaviors, and improved safety for students.

Let’s call it like it is - child molesters are inherently boundary-breakers and together we can define and model good boundaries that clearly set their actions outside the norm of acceptable behavior.

About the Author – Diane Cranley

Diane Cranley has become a leading change agent in the prevention of child sexual abuse by sharing her holistic approach to prevention. She has taken the immense complexities of the child sexual abuse pandemic and condensed them into a set of best practices that are clear and actionable. These best practices provide the foundation for strategically identifying and mitigating the risks of child sexual abuse.

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In addition to Diane’s work as a prevention consultant, she is the author of 8 Ways to Create Their Fate: Protecting the Sexual Innocence of Children in Youth-Serving Organizations and the Founder of TAALK, an organization dedicated to breaking the silence that surrounds child sexual abuse.

Diane’s prevention training has been viewed 1.5 million times by California school employees in the past seven years and is now available through school risk pools and insurance providers nationally and internationally. This online Child Sexual Abuse Prevention training, available through Vector Solutions, helps schools make impactful strides toward creating a brighter safer tomorrow for the students in their care.

To learn more about our school staff training on grooming and boundaries, please contact us at [email protected] or request a demo online.

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