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Child Protection: A Comprehensive Approach

By Francey Hakes, Bruce Mills, and Patricia Handly
Child Protection: A Comprehensive Approach

A fundamental responsibility of all schools is to safeguard students. Doing this successfully requires a firm commitment from school leaders and all other school stakeholders. Without this commitment, safety, security, and emergency preparedness will be viewed by many as inconvenient and disruptive.
Each school environment is unique, so knowing and understanding specific threats and hazards is the first step to a comprehensive student protection program.
One threat that all schools face, regardless of location or size, is that of the sexual predator. Understanding the predator’s modus operandi is central to building an effective child protection program. This is not a pleasant topic, but it is critical to gain insight into how predators view schools as favorable environments.
Social scientists tell us there are two different types of child sex offenders, typically categorized as situational or preferential. The situational predator is often one who can be impulsive, seeks targets of opportunity, and because he can be sexually indiscriminate, may go after boys or girls.
Some examples of a situational predator operating in a school environment could be the “stranger lurking” outside of the campus or a temporary contractor working on campus, both waiting for the opportunity to approach an unaccompanied student.
The preferential offender, on the other hand, is often a master manipulator and may lay in wait for a particularly vulnerable child who can be groomed (either in person or online) and manipulated prior to engaging in abuse. This predator is typically more intelligent and compulsive. In a school environment this could be a teacher, an administrator, a chaperone on an off-campus trip, or even a parent.
Once schools accept the fact that they all face the potential threat from predators, and understand this threat can be digital or physical, they can develop comprehensive solutions to prevent or mitigate the threat. Since neither the situational or preferential child sex offender is easy to spot or identify, any comprehensive child protection program must begin with vigilance.
Other suggested components include:
1. Robust physical security (i.e. fences, gates and locks.)
2. Access control policies and procedures (who is allowed unsupervised access to students?)
3. Vigorous pre-employment screening for all personnel who have unsupervised access to students. This includes not just teachers and administrators, but also contractors, service personnel, and temporary and volunteer staff.
4. Social/Emotional Curriculum where students learn about predatory behavior and how to speak up with confidence against harm. These topics should be taught in order to offer students the best defense of all: knowledge.
5. Training for teachers and staff so they can recognize offender traits and behaviors, as well as signs of at-risk children and the appropriate actions to take.
Even though schools may have a proactive child protection program they should also be prepared to handle allegations of abuse, should they arise. Establishing and maintaining policies and procedures for reporting suspicions and anomalies regarding inappropriate or unsuitable behavior will also be required. These include a prompt response, investigation and the archived documentation of incidents and reports. Initiating and maintaining a relationship with the responsible local authorities before an incident is also critically important.
In order to be prepared, these policies and procedures must be widely known and well-rehearsed. For those in countries without law enforcement trained in these kinds of investigations, schools should consider having on retainer an expert or team with a strong law enforcement background who could be contacted at short notice, liaise with local law enforcement, and attempt a fair and impartial inquiry.
The above suggestions are just part of what is needed for a child protection program—each alone is insufficient. The best defense is to embrace an integrated and comprehensive preparedness, safety, and security program. Keeping students safe and secure, from a multitude of threats and hazards, is not an easy endeavor; but it should remain a top school priority, so that educating children remains the focus—not tragedies, litigation, and criminal probes.

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