Sexual assault prevention education faces challenges in N.H.

Monitor staff
Published: 4/16/2017 11:57:27 PM

Hazel and Sunny aren’t your typical elementary school students. They have plush faces, eyes made out of crafting felt and, well, one’s a monkey and the other a harbor seal.

But the students don’t judge; it’s the puppets’ unique features that excite the kindergartners who welcome them into their schools for lessons on personal body safety.

The puppets teach the differences between “good, hurtful and confusing” touches, and, over time, students start to see them as kids, like them, in need of help, said Emily Murphy, the violence prevention educator at HAVEN, a crisis center that serves southeastern New Hampshire.

“We have heard about kids making disclosures of sexual abuse after having seen a puppet show,” Murphy said, noting that the puppets are used in kindergarten through fourth grade. “Children really worry that people will look at them differently, but we tell them they didn’t do anything wrong, and encourage them to tell an adult.”

HAVEN is under the umbrella of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which has 13 member agencies throughout the state providing services to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking. HAVEN provides age-appropriate prevention education to kindergartners through 12th-graders on the Seacoast.

The state of New Hampshire doesn’t allocate any general fund dollars to sexual assault intervention or prevention. That means the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence 13 crisis centers must look elsewhere for funding, including through grants and private donations. The centers do receive about $277,000 in federal dollars for prevention education, which equates to roughly $21,000 per center per year.

HAVEN has estimated that the cost per child is $2.50. Under that estimate, crisis centers can serve only 8,400 kids before the money runs out. There are 40,000 children who attend schools in HAVEN’s service area.

Prevention education is grade-specific, and some crisis centers don’t have the resources to be able to reach kids at every grade level. Students who do learn about personal body safety at the outset will go on to explore larger societal issues, such as the media’s portrayal of sexual violence, the psychology of victim blaming and mixed messages about consent.

While “no means no” was the mantra for years, schools and universities across the country are replacing it with a new standard: “yes means yes.” The model changes the conversation by viewing consent as something that must actively and affirmatively be obtained, said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs at the coalition.

“This model encourages open and frequent communication between partners, and stresses that consent can be given and taken away at any time. It recognizes that silence or indifference aren’t true consent, that you should expect and want an enthusiastic ‘yes’ from your sexual partner, and that ‘no means rape,’ ” she said.

Students are learning about consent and applying what they learn to mock scenarios, but not every classroom is included in the conversation. Prevention education in New Hampshire is inconsistent across the board, as crisis centers and schools make connections one-on-one.

Certain communities are at a distinct disadvantage because they have a limited capacity to raise money and don’t have the staff to seek out additional sources of revenue, Grady Sexton said. Advocates in more rural areas are often responsible for providing everything from 24-hour services to in-school presentations about sexual violence, she said.

Faced with those challenges, advocates say they’re also trying to find innovative ways to reach adults, too.

“We’re educating these kids about really important topics, but they’re going home to adults who don’t have that same education,” said Paula Kelley-Wall, director of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire. “What we’re really looking for is for adults to be ambassadors. That’s when we’re really going to see a societal shift.”

Murphy said HAVEN wishes it could serve more adults, but that she understands that evening workshops don’t work for everyone. She added that it’s important for adults to understand what messages they’re giving kids and how to respond if a child does disclose.

“The shame is not in the child reporting. The shame is not in preventing it. The issue is when we turn a blind eye and don’t want to talk about it.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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