There comes a time when a community has to face a dreaded reality. No other issue can strike such a deep, repulsive chord in all of us like that of child abuse and sexual assault. As parents, it’s one of our biggest fears. Devastatingly, it has happened here in our beloved hometown in the case of Greeley drama teacher Christopher Schraufnagel, whose plea bargain on felony and sexual abuse charges brought by families of victims, was recently rejected by Judge Kraus in New Castle at the time we were going to press, and the case remains open.
The shock and outrage of the community has been deafening but pales in comparison to the irreparable, heart-wrenching pain felt by the kids and parents personally affected by this tragedy. The purpose of this article is not to document the trajectory of this case, which is being amply covered by local daily/weekly media, but to provide information and resources to help equip and protect our children going forward.
No matter what the age, abuse is abuse is abuse. “And in no circumstance is the child at fault,” says April’s Child Executive Director Laura Bernstein Schwartz, ACSW. “No community is immune,” she adds.
The terms tiger mom and helicopter parents are used to describe some parents today. We think because we’re involved, educated, and live in safe, affluent communities that things like this don’t go on.
More than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between Kindergarten and 12th grade, according to U.S. government statistics.
“The 4.5 million victims represent 9.6% of all school-age children….Students who are more likely to be sexually abused include: girls, especially girls of color (African-American, Native American, and Hispanic-American); children with disabilities; children who are estranged from their parents, who may be unsure of themselves, and/or who engage in high-risk behaviors….Several studies estimate that only about six percent of all children report sexual abuse by an adult to someone who can do something about it. The other 94 percent do not tell anyone or talk only to a friend. And they swear their friend to secrecy….”*
What a Predator Looks Like
More often than not, a sexual predator is someone the child or adolescent knows. It could be a neighbor, uncle, sibling, friend, teacher, coach, clergy member, etc. Predators are typically in places of authority. Many are chronic offenders. Predators are mostly men. “Contrary to what we think, predators are charming and very patient,” says Chappaqua resident and psychologist William M. Dince, Ph.D.
Usually, a predator has the opportunity to be alone with the child over a period of time where there is no oversight. “They create a safe haven where a child feels important and special,” says Dince.
Predators give gifts or rewards. They offer support and understanding, while slowly increasing the amount of touch or other sexual behavior. This is called the grooming process. Parents need to be aware of the signs of the grooming phase which takes place between predator and the potential victim. “Predators are adept at reading vulnerabilities,” says Dince. The purpose of grooming is to assess the child’s ability to maintain secrecy.
What We Can Do As Parents
“The best way to safeguard our kids is to, first and foremost, always believe the child,” says Schwartz. It sounds like Parenting 101, but, as early as a child can speak, we need to be tuned in to, not only what they say, but what they are feeling. At any age, a child needs to feel they can confide in us without being judged or reprimanded. We need to validate their feelings when they share things like, I don’t like my teacher… or I hate so and so…. At times, we might dismiss their feelings and say things like, Oh, you don’t mean that or that’s not nice to say you hate someone.
Paying attention when they express their feelings gives us insight as to how our kids are navigating their world. At times, our family lives and professional lives are super busy and stressful, but carving out time to allow conversations to unfurl in a nonjudgmental way gives us a window into what’s really going on outside their home life.
Like most parents, we teach our kids to be respectful of peers, adults, and people in places of authority. “But if a child doesn’t feel comfortable greeting someone with a hug, we need to acknowledge that and let them know it’s okay,” says Schwartz. We can also observe our children and how they interact with others in social situations to see whether they’re hesitant or uncomfortable around certain people.
Parents can help protect their children against sexual abuse by having age-appropriate discussions about sexual behavior and encourage them to stand up for themselves and say no if someone attempts to touch their sexual parts. “For younger children, the standard guideline is to let the child know that it’s not okay for someone to touch them in areas their bathing suit covers,” says Schwartz. Of course, for adolescents, the conversation becomes more complicated, but we can be more frank and descriptive.
What a Community and School System Should Do
According to Title IX, when incidences of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse are reported, a protocol must be followed. Swift, effective action must be taken by the school and its administration. Title IX further lays out that “[A school] should ensure that you are aware of your Title IX rights and any available resources, such as victim advocacy, housing assistance, academic support, counseling, disability services, health and mental health services, and legal assistance….[A] school must designate a Title IX coordinator and make sure all students and employees know how to contact him or her. The Title IX coordinator should also be available to meet with you….”
Unfortunately, we have been shaken as a community and want to ensure our children’s safety going forward. Here in Chappaqua, our schools are ranked top in the country. Our teachers and staff are highly qualified.
From a personal standpoint, my son went through the school system from K-12 and thrived academically and socially. He had countless positive, inspirational experiences with teachers, coaches, and staff which helped shape the 23-year-old young man he is today.
That being said, one rotten apple in the community or in the school system is one too many. It all goes back to believing the child. Studies, in general, show that false allegations of sexual abuse are rare. As parents, we need to be their trusted confidant and advocate.
Educating ourselves and teaching our kids, at any age, to stand up for themselves is a good place to start. And, as a community, we must make sure that our schools and administration take prompt action and ensure that the policies in place are strictly followed and enforced.
This topic is multi-layered and too lengthy to cover in full in this article. Please go to the lists of resources and references provided below.
New Coalition Committee Recommended Resources
A Coalition for Youth Subcommittee for Community Healing–with representatives from the school, town, clergy and police–has formed recently in New Castle to address concerns raised by the Schraufnagel case. The committee provided the Inside Press with the following list of agencies and organizations “as those who provide support and counseling to survivors of sexual misconduct and abuse, as well as to educate people on how communities can help protect against predators.”
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- Darkness to Light
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
- Lauren’s Kids
- S.E.S.A.M.E (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation)
References & Resources:
- U.S. Department of Education
- U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Title IX
- U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Undersecretary (2004) Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature (PDF)
- Protecting Your Child From K-12 Sexual Predators Masquerading As Teachers/Educators: Action Steps For Parents, By Dr. Charles J. Hobson Professor of Management School of Business & Economics Indiana University Northwest (PDF)
- William Dince, PhD, Chappaqua-based psychologist specializing in neuropsychologically-based assessment and treatment
- Executive Director Laura Bernstein Schwartz, ACSW, of April’s Child
Janine Crowley Haynes is a 20-year resident of Chappaqua, mother, and author of My Kind of Crazy: Living in a Bipolar World.