Deep, dark bruises are visible up and down the young boy’s arm. He flinches as the guidance counselor questions him.
“It’s against the law for adults to injure children,” the counselor says on the educational video.
This is just one of the scenarios presented by guidance counselors in Columbia Public Schools. School counselors have been teaching young students about physical, emotional and sexual abuse for nearly 20 years through a program of puppet shows, videos and class lessons.
School officials want to communicate three main ideas to the children: Saying “no,” getting away and telling someone trustworthy. The program arms children with the resources to help them get out of uncomfortable situations, said Carolyn Roof, coordinator for the district’s elementary counselors.
Abuse is a cycle that often dictates an increased chance of an abused child becoming an abuser. Education for young children is a good idea for combating the cycle of abuse, said Capt. Mike Martin of the Columbia Police Department.
“I think it’s very important,” Martin said of the district’s program. “You hear the saying that you’re a product of your environment.”
The program, which was first coordinated by teachers, parents and counselors about two decades ago, is tailor-made to fit the grade level of the students — a puppet show for kindergartners and age-appropriate videos for children in grades one through five The group started the program because it thought more preventive education was needed.
Lisa Fortner, a guidance counselor at Grant Elementary, said the program’s purpose remains the same, to take a preventive approach by giving children information.
“It’s more to make them aware that if there was something that made them feel uncomfortable, there are things they can do about it,” Fortner said.
The lessons are tailored to each grade level. The puppet shows performed for the kindergarten students are about feelings, while the videos shown to children in fourth and fifth grades are more explicit about sexual and physical abuse. Because of the topic’s sensitive nature, Fortner said it is important that counselors proceed with caution when talking with young children.
“You always want to be careful that you are helping and not scaring them,” she said.
Before the lessons, the counselors hold a preview night, allow parents to screen the material and address any concerns about it.
Sheila Jackson, a mother of a fifth-grader and first-grader at Ridgeway Elementary, was uncomfortable with some of the language used but appreciates the school’s proactive approach.
“I think that it’s more common than most people would like to believe, unfortunately,” Jackson said. “And with this type of program you’re catching it on the front end as a preventative measure.”
The school measures the program’s success by looking at parent evaluations, teacher feedback and the number of children who come forward after watching the presentation. It’s not unusual for one or two children to come forward with questions after a presentation. When this happens, counselors and teachers investigate further. If abuse is suspected, school officials must report it.
Often, however, these questions might just arise from confusion on the part of a student. This leads to a phone call to parents, which Fortner said is beneficial because it creates a student-parent-teacher bond.
Martin said most cases reported to police involve adults who fail to realize their own strength.
“More times than not it is overzealousness as far as someone being angry with a child,” he said. “They may decide to resort to a coat hanger or electrical cord which causes injury to a child. All it does is bring forward the element of another weapon. It has no positive effect in disciplining.”
Erin Keys, whose 5-year-old daughter attends Ridgeway, said she appreciated the information given and a chance to see the puppet show her daughter would view.
“I think it’s important for them to learn the skills necessary to take care of themselves in uncomfortable situations,” Keys said. “We hope that they don’t encounter them as children, but unfortunately it does happen. Kids have to be prepared.”
Fortner uses literature-based lessons to supplement the points taught in the videos and shows to get the message across to children.
“I want it to be automatic,” Fortner said. “I want them to know they can talk to us here.”
Roof credits programs like those used by Columbia schools for making abuse a topic of discussion.
Discussions have helped change abuse from a private matter to a public matter.
“Twenty years ago it was, ‘Go for a walk and cool off,’ because it was considered a private situation amongst the family,” Martin said. “Since that time we’ve had a shift within our country and society that says no, that’s not acceptable. It’s not a private thing. It’s a crime. It needs to be addressed.”
The topic is unnerving to some, but the benefits of discussion outweigh any uneasiness felt.
“It’s uncomfortable to me,” Jackson said. “But you can’t sort of beat around the bush about those kind of issues.”