Under new state mandates, the Orange Board of Education is now required to implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program. Under Erin’s Law, elementary school students will have presentations that teach age-appropriate preventative measures to avoid sexual abuse.
The Board of Education heard a presentation from staff at the Rape Crisis Center of Milford in order to prepare for the implementation. “Part of the Rape Crisis Center is a component called Project Teach, where they go into schools to inform about sexual abuse,” explained Superintendent of Schools Vince Scarpetti. “Last year we received a state mandate and we began training with Mr. Vitti, DCF and the Orange Police Department.”
Orange, according to Tony Vitti, Executive Director of the Center, is the first of the seven towns that the center covers to begin to adapt an informative program in the schools. “This is more about prevention. As all of the studies show, prevention works and it reduces—especially in our world—these types of crimes,” Vitti said. “People initially think, ‘Why do I want my child to talk about this?’ Everything covered is age appropriate and is delivered by experts. The important thing about experts delivering the material is its unbiased and the message that needs to be delivered is delivered the exact same way every single time.”
Vitti, a long-time Orange resident and former board of education member, said he wants kids to know prevention and to make sure that they’re safe. “These programs are designed to help kids with honesty and respect. It’s not just about something that we’re so hesitant to talk about—sexual assault—this program helps to make them more well-rounded people,” Vitti said. “We want everything to be a collaborative team effort. We never want parents to feel they’re in the dark about something or that anything will be done that they’re not comfortable with,” said Victoria Carnera, Community Educator for the center.
Prior to each visit, a letter goes home to parents outlining the presentation that students will be attending and an option for parents to call Carnera if they have any questions or concerns. “Most of the time, by the time we’re finished talking, they’re completely comfortable. I’ve never had a parent speak to me and then decide ‘absolutely not; this isn’t for my kid’. We do, however, offer for parents to opt-out if they are truly not comfortable,” she said.
Carnera was asked to provide a brief overview of the program for first and fifth grade students to the Board of Education. The first grade program is discussion based and lasts 30-45 minutes. Students in all age levels are permitted to leave the discussion if something is upsetting to them. Carnera also offers to have private conversations with students after the presentation and after school.
The first grade program covers what are referred to as ‘OK touches’ and ‘Not OK touches.’ OK touches make a person feel happy, safe and good inside—such as a high-five or a light tap on the shoulder. Not OK touches make a person feel sad, unsafe and uncomfortable on the inside. “Next we go over the body. We tell them that they are the boss of their own body, and if something is not okay with them, they will decide that,” Carnera said. “We talk generally about body parts, not using the terms that adults would use, but more like top front, bottom front, bottom back, and we discuss the ‘clean and healthy’ rule, which means that someone can only touch certain parts of your body if they’re keeping you clean or healthy.”
The children are taught that if someone breaks the ‘clean and healthy rule,‘ they are to say no, get away safely and call a trusted adult. “We spend a lot of time talking about trusted adults. We want children to know that trusted adults include more than mom and dad and teachers,” Carnera said.
The program builds with a new age-appropriate focus for each grade. The fifth grade presentation focuses on healthy relationships. “This program emphasizes healthy communication skills, interpersonal skills and empathy-building. We talk about characteristics of healthy relationships and friendships, boundaries and equality on a verbal and non-verbal level,” Carnera said.
The curriculum was written by community educators from nine sexual assault centers in response to state mandates for all schools to incorporate a sexual assault lesson. Representatives have been offering programs to the communities it serves for 25 years.
By Melissa Nicefaro – Orange Town News Correspondent