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Column: A Vigilant, Well-Trained Staff Is Best Way to Protect Students

You do not need a police officer in a school to protect students from pedophiles, contrary to the Bradford Police Commission’s proposal in response to the recent sexual assault charge against an Oxbow High School coach. Schools are better served by thorough background checks, open-door policies, adults who are observant, procedures in place regarding child abuse allegations, and administrators with backbone.

First, background checks. A school’s personnel department should require background checks on everyone who will be in and around children — from the janitor to the coach to the library aide who works two hours a week as a volunteer — making sure they don’t have a criminal record with a history of sexual assault against minors under their current names or aliases. This should happen for every new employee or volunteer regardless of how long people may have known them, been their neighbors or regarded them as model citizens.

Next, open-door policies should include all faculty and staff — not only for the protection of children, but also because no one wants to leave themselves open to the possibility of an accusation. There are good reasons why doors need to be closed for certain meetings. Windows on doors keep kids safe while maintaining privacy and should be standard. This way it is obvious at a glance to anyone passing by what is happening.

A school full of adults who are observant can keep children out of harm’s way better than one well-trained police officer. If something doesn’t feel right, there is a reason for that: That’s your gut talking, and you need to pay attention to it. A kid’s well-being depends upon it, and you don’t have the luxury of thinking it over for a few weeks, watchfully waiting, seeing what else may come up — or any of the other lies we tell ourselves to dispel the horror we feel about what we secretly suspect.

Another way schools can keep students safe is to have a procedure that everyone in the building knows about and has a copy of in the event that they suspect child abuse. This will require training in what constitutes child abuse, what one can and cannot ask a child if one is suspicious and where to go with one’s suspicions.

Typically, schools create a chain of command whereby teachers go to an administrator who then makes the decision about whether to alert child-protective services. It will come as a surprise to no one who knows me to learn that despite the protocols in the various schools where I’ve worked, I always called child protective officials anyway because I thought that just telling the vice principal wasn’t good enough; I wanted to advocate for my students.

Also, schools should have clear policies regarding behavior involving sexuality in the workplace, making sure every possible scenario is covered. Everyone should be required to sign this document yearly, even volunteers.

Lastly, schools are well served by having bosses with backbone. It can be awkward to ask people questions if that might make them embarrassed or angry. People report their suspicions and that, too, can be uncomfortable, and then it requires a judgment about the legitimacy of the information. We are all brought up not to discuss certain things in polite conversation.

We need to get over it.

To protect kids, speak up, open doors without knocking, show up unexpectedly, ask pointed questions and demand answers. If someone had done that with Jerry Sandusky, for example, several grown men would be living with fewer ghosts today. Not speaking up helps the bad guy and is exactly what predators count on — that though people may have their suspicions, no one will actually say out loud, “Hey, why are you having meetings in your classroom with students with the doors closed?” The person in charge needs to do the unpleasant work, asking the tough questions and listening to parents about their concerns. What educators shouldn’t do is go straight to the kids first and ask, “Do you want to tell me anything about Mr. So-and-So?” No matter how grown-up they look, behave or dress, they are still children; they know that talking to the principal or another adult means someone’s in trouble, and they get anxious and they choke. Adults should be shielding them throughout the entire process, including the information-gathering part. Find out all you can without talking with the students; this is an adult problem, and the adults should be handling it. Children may need help in dealing with what may have happened to them, that’s all.

Police officers in schools can be helpful in any number of ways, including establishing good relationships among different groups, helping combat substance abuse and detering violence. But when it comes to child molesters who operate on the quiet, one on one, more is better: One cop can’t be as effective as a comprehensive strategy, good policies and procedures, informed and attentive staff, and leadership with courage and conviction.

Debra Beaupre, mother of three, was a camp director for 23 years and has been teaching grade school since 1992. She lives in Meriden.